BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After the fall of a human civilization, in a distant solar system, the remnants of the survivors encounter the unintended and unexpected legacy of their ancestors even as they struggle to preserve what remains of the human race
PROS: Well handled characters, human and non human alike, especially the Spiders; good use of literary devices to tell a wide ranging story.
CONS: Back end of the novel becomes much more conventional as compared to what precedes, leading to an ending that feels like an undeserved swerve from what leads up to it; readers with strong insect phobias might want to look elsewhere.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining and thought provoking novel of post humanity, survival and legacy.
At the precipice of civilization’s height, the terraforming and preparing of a distant world is about to begin. This world will be remade, and seeded with monkeys that will be uplifted to sentience and reason by means of biotechnology. Mankind will become as a god, daring to create a new sentient species for this new world. A species that is made in man’s own image. But at the moment of victory, at the moment of this reaching for godhood, the dark forces within mankind, the voices of fear and intolerance rise up, spoil the experiment, destroy the plan, and ultimately cause that human civilization itself to fall.
Millennia later, the remnants of humanity,having risen again to the stars even as Earth inexorably dies, return to the Kern World’s system seeking a new home for humanity, quite unaware and quite unprepared for the accidental legacy of their ancestors which has arisen from that long ago incident. A legacy not even the remnants of those ancestors could imagine had sprung. Children of Time is a turn from Adrian Tchaikovsky’s usual position in the fantasy portion of the speculative fiction web onto a much more science fiction node.
The inventiveness of the insect world will be no surprise to readers of Tchaiovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. That fantasy series presented us with a world where humans took their cues from various species of insect. The various kinds of Kinden were all human…but they were also of insect, and had large insects as the major part of the biome. In Children of Time, Kern’s world, due to the disaster at the start of the novel, winds up not being seeded with uplifted monkeys, but rather, the uplift virus does its magic on insects, particularly spiders and ants. Given the amount of time the novel takes place over,and the lifespans of such insects, we get an episodic, time skipping look at various iterations and points in the history of the Spiders. We thus get a succession of spider characters, named and renamed again after various Shakespeare protagonists, especially Portia. The author does an excellent job in balancing plausibility with extrapolation in making the evolution of the spiders as a species and as a civilization exciting and believable, and making the insects into characters to root for. The quasi present tense 3rd person omniscient point of view these chapters have make them distinct from the human chapters in tone and style, but given the amount of information the author is trying to get across about a truly alien society and world, ultimately necessary.
The human survivors and emigrants, fleeing a dying and doomed Earth, might invoke for readers works such as Battlestar Galactica, with the last remnants of man, fleeing a destroyed civilization behind it, searching for a new home, a place for humanity to survive, to begin again. The struggles, challenges, and desperation of trying to keep the last remnants of humanity alive give these portions of the novel a hardscrabble desperation that contrasts very well with the burgeoning and growing and evolving Spider civilization. Even as the Spiders claw their way toward technological maturity and social evolution, humanity time and again threatens to fall down into the abyss. The added wrinkle of searching for the remnants of the older human civilization and their works puts me in mind of the Artemis universe of Jane Linkskold, although the new human civilization that arises in that universe is not as much of a hardscrabble existence. I really enjoyed the idea of having to rescue and repurpose older parts of abandoned human technology and trying to figure out how they work and why. It gives the novel a neo-archaeological feel. I thus identified strongly with Holsten, the human survivor most intimately tied to that work.
The novel’s inventiveness seems to be somewhat diminished toward the end, leading to a relatively pedestrian and well-worn set of tropes for the finale. It was something of a disappointment, and I didn’t quite buy the ending. I am not certain the novel earns it given all that has happened before. However, to forgive the novel for that failing, Children of Time is an enormously interesting and well drawn SF novel that asks some tough questions and makes interesting extrapolations. And, finally, as expected from this author and his previous work, the novel does amazing things with insects. Adrian Tchaikovsky brings humanity, nuance, understanding and illumination to his insect characters and the worlds they make, equally strongly as his human and post human ones.