Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
When the Clarke Award nominees were announced Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was described on my Facebook and Twitter feeds as the generation ship book with the spiders. This evoked images – Aliens style – of a small, embattled crew protecting their cargo of human popsicles from mutant, two metre long spiders. While the Children of Time does feature some spider on human action, it’s the philosophical ponderings and sense of wonder and discovery that make the book such a delight to read.
The plot goes something like this: The last survivors of a dead Earth are searching for a terraformed world they believe exists based on the cobbled together records of the previous Earth Empire. The Gilgamesh – a generation ship – is lucky to find one such world only to discover that it is protected by the egotistical and mad ravings of an uploaded personality, Doctor Avrana Kern, who headed the terraforming project two thousand years previously. Kern intends to safeguard her legacy, not just the sanctity of her planet but also its residents: a colony of what she believes to be uplifted primates. Except Kern has forgotten that the primates never reached the planet. Her project was sabotaged, a first act in a war that led to the end of the Old Empire. What was dispatched to the planet before everything went tits up was a flask containing the nano-virus intended to rewrite the neural networks of these primates. But when the primates didn’t make it, the nano-virus found another subject. Spiders. Portia Labiata to be exact. Also known as the jumping spider.
Because the generation ship narrative takes hundreds of years to unfold and because spiders have short lifespans, Tchaikovsky takes his time developing spider society. In each generation there is a Portia, a Bianca and a Fabian and through their multiplicity of eyes and limbs we watch as spider society grows outward and inwards. This includes great wars against the ants (also infected by the nano-virus), a religious schism brought about by the messages spilling from Doctor Avrana Kern’s satellite and the struggles of dealing with a worldwide pandemic. And in among all this social issues emerge, especially around the roles of gender in a society where the males only purpose is to provide sperm and then be consumed as an after coitus snack. Tchaikovsky handles all this beautifully. He instills a sense of wonder, while never betraying the genetic antecedent of his sapient spiders. At the same time he argues that intelligence and imagination and the desire to progress does bring societal change, whether you have eight legs or two.
To Tchaikovsky’s credit, the parts of the novel dealing with the humans on the generation ship are only marginally less interesting. He makes the smart move of telling that story through the one perspective – Holsten Mason, a classicist who has spent his life translating the texts left by the Old Empire. Mason plays a critical role in interpreting the ravings of Doctor Kern when the Gilgamesh reaches her satellite and the bountiful world it orbits. The novel is divided into eight sections and one of the running gags is having Mason wake up to discover that a generation or two have whizzed by and the ship is either facing a mutiny, been taken over by a group of religious zealots or is under threat from the megalomaniacal desires of the Gilgamesh’s captain. The bits involving the mutiny and the religious zealots seem par for the course for a generation ship novel. But because it’s told through Holsten’s sympathetic eyes these sections aren’t as predictable or dull as might otherwise be the case.
More than that, Holsten’s story (or adventure) on the generation ship brings home the key theme of the book, the idea of imitatio dei – the desire to imitate God. In the case of the spiders, God is the satellite that orbits their planet and this almost heretical urge to communicate with that object. For the humans, that imitation is chasing after the technology and ideologies left by the Old Empire. The way both societies deal with this journey not only provides the book with plenty of drama and tension but a deep and nuanced philosophy.
I might be insulting Tchaikovsky, whose work I’ve never read before, that I was caught by surprise by how smart and profound Children of Time was. As Peter Hamilton says on the less than inspiring front cover, this truly is very smart science fiction.