I suffer from a strong aversion to insects – any kind of insect: the mere idea of something crawling up an arm or a leg, even if it’s the most harmless creature in the whole universe, makes me shudder in revulsion. That’s the main reason I resisted so much before reading this novel, despite the glowing reviews from several fellow bloggers – because I knew spiders were this story’s main characters. Spiders.
And yet, the premise for this novel sounded interesting, and the unanimous praise concerning Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work was a powerful incentive to try and overcome my dislike. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I was not only able to happily sail through the… many-legged narrative of Children of Time without a qualm, but ended up enjoying the sections focusing on the spiders much more than the ones about humans. Our mind works indeed in mysterious ways…
The future on Earth does not look very cheerful: despite the huge advances in technology and the many terraforming projects launched to create new homes for humanity’s expansion, there is also a strong movement that abhors the manipulations of science and wants to keep planet Earth as the sole, pristine home for the human race, a movement that is apparently growing in strength and numbers. Dr. Avrana Kern is carrying on a very ambitious goal: that of not simply terraforming a suitable planet, but of peopling it with enhanced monkeys, infected with a nanovirus that will speed up the growth of their mental abilities and therefore create a willing race of assistants for the colonists that will come for a further phase of the project. The final stage of Kern’s endeavor is however sabotaged from the inside, the ship that should have landed the monkeys on her planet crashes and burns, and she remains the sole survivor of the expedition, waiting in suspended animation to see what the virus payload – the only part of her plan that escaped sabotage – will do to the target world.
As human civilization crumbles and falls in the aftermath of the anti-science faction, and then rises painfully out of its own ashes, launching ark ships in search of a new home for what remains of the people of Earth, on Kern’s world spiders find themselves the recipients of the nanovirus, and start the long journey toward their uplift as a sentient race: the story splits here into two threads, following the two separate – but at some point converging – narratives, that of the spiders, slowly but surely evolving from simple-minded hunters to complex creatures who build a flourishing civilization; and that of the humans, displaced both in space and in time, as they are awakened from their frozen sleep when need arises and as their search for a new home becomes more and more desperate.
It’s impossible not to notice the dichotomy between the spider’s upward spiral, as their grasp on evolution (the buildup of Understandings, as they call them) increases exponentially, and mankind’s regression as their resources dwindle and the ship starts to break down around them: humanity has not only lost its home planet and the colonies it established in its golden age, they have also lost much of the higher technology that allowed projects like the one launched by Dr. Kern. Much of what made Earth’s civilization is now almost consigned to myth, and the only person on the ark ship Gilgamesh who is able to access that knowledge is Mason Holsten, a classicist – a cross between a linguist and an archeologist, a man who often feels like the proverbial fish out of water and therefore symbolizes perfectly the floundering attempts at survival of these people who have been torn from their roots in more ways than one.
It’s indeed a desolate spectacle, made even sadder by the steady advancements of the spiders, whose powers of adaptation to their environment appear so extraordinary that after a while I forgot I was not reading about human creatures: I became deeply invested in their discoveries and successes, particularly because the author gives us a definite frame of reference through a few recurring characters that, generation after generation, take on the roles of their predecessors. We therefore have Portia, the intrepid hunter who incarnates the courage to explore and to overcome one’s limitations; then there is Bianca, the thinker and scientists whose discoveries advance the spiders’ civilization in leaps and bounds; and then there is Fabian, the only male of notice in a society that is strongly geared toward matriarchy and who acts both at the catalyst of many changes and as the balance between Portia and Bianca.
Make no mistake, these are not humanized spiders, they retain all of their weird alien-ness in cultural outlook and instinctual behavior, but still the author made them highly relatable not in spite of, but because of those differences. There are several descriptions of the spider cities, sprawling complexes of aerial bridges and woven-silk platforms that come across as things of wonder and beauty even while one sees the huge differences brought on by the nature of their dwellers and the limitations imposed by the planet’s resources, where metals are scarce and much of the spiders’ organic technology is based on chemistry and scent, on biology rather than mechanics. One can easily see the successful hybridization of beauty and function that the spiders are able to achieve, and the admiration for such endeavors is enhanced by the respect for the deeds of the three recurring protagonists – Portia, Bianca and Fabian – in all of their incarnations: like pioneers of old, they are the ones who take the giant steps that advance the civilization, sometimes paying the ultimate price for it, and it’s impossible not to be moved by such determination in the face of danger, hostile attacks or ravaging disease.
On the other hand, humanity offers a very sorry spectacle as the power plays of old take precedence over the needs of simple survival or the goal of finding a suitable planet where to establish a new civilization: the few voices in favor of reason are constantly drowned by the apparently unavoidable drive toward conflict and destruction, a drive that comes to a dramatic height once the desperate survivors realize that Kern’s world is their only viable option and that they will have to fight the spiders for it. This is the point where the author managed to surprise me with a twist I would never have expected, a solution to the often quoted Prisoner’s Dilemma – an interesting logic exercise, indeed – that felt both unexpected and right, a very satisfying conclusion to a riveting story.
I now understand the reason for the praise I have often encountered for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s work, and I look forward to discovering what other enthralling wonders he has in store for me…