Monday, 10 July 2017
How do you write a great science fiction novel that both captures the quality and scope of the various ‘golden ages’ of science fiction and yet make it also modern and innovative? It’s a tricky balancing act but with Children of Time Adrian Tchaikovsky certainly has achieved that feat. For his efforts Tchaikovsky won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2016, which is certainly apt as the novel most certainly echos Clarke’s ability to tackle profound themes with originality and verve. I usually try to avoid any obvious spoilers in my reviews, but just a warning here because to discuss this novel properly I will need to reveal a few key things, however in my defense the main reveal is quite obvious within the first few chapters of the novel, rather than being, for example, a plot twist near the end.
The narrative centres around Kern’s World, a name given unofficially by Doctor Avrana Kern, the leader of a project to terraform the planet and introduce monkeys that will be uplifted by a nano virus and therefore spread life throughout the galaxy on humanity’s terms. Of course things don’t go to plan because humanity is still a flawed proposition even in the far-flung future in which the solar system is colonized and the stars are accessible via sophisticated and powerful technology. Tchaikovsky uses alternating chapters to tell the story of what happens when the human civilization that creates Kern’s World is superseded by a lesser human civilization and the nano virus that was meant to super-evolve the monkeys goes to work on spiders instead. As the spiders continually evolve the human threat from space becomes more pressing, which increases the narrative tension exponentially. As far as spoilers go, that’s it, but fortunately that is only the beginning of this sublime science fiction novel, one of the very best I’ve read for years.
Children of Time is a near flawless novel that draws you into its narrative arc absolutely. As the novel progressed I began to think that some of the human characters were not very well written, but then I realised that Tchaikovsky had written the spider characters so brilliantly that they actually outshone the human ones. Also Tchaikovsky totally manipulates the reader into siding with the spiders; I become extremely emotionally attached to them and wanted them to survive and prosper. I didn’t care at all about the fate of the humans, who, of course, are far more monstrous than the metre long spiders themselves. Tchaikovsky’s skills also extend to the creation of a fully realised evolutionary world that vibrates with fascinating detail and plausible outcomes. I found Kern’s World to be so compelling that sometimes the shift to the human oriented chapters was slightly jarring, however these chapters were also almost uniformly excellent, filled with old school science fiction tropes made anew. Both narrative streams also share a complex moral landscape, with the humans wrestling with humanity’s flawed past, the present demands of survival and the disorienting effects of human life suspension. The spiders struggle for dominance on their planet and the moral ambiguities that arise when instinct, culture and intellectual development collide.
Throughout the novel Tchaikovsky continually made me wonder just how it would end, but it was never obvious just what would happen. Endings are often difficult for authors, but Tchaikovsky succeeded in ramping up the excitement and the mystery of the novel’s endgame. All I’ll say is that I was dazzled at just how well he pulled it off. I do not want to give anything more away and spoil it for all the science fiction freaks out there. Children of Time will please all fans of speculative fiction and it would also be a great novel for novices to begin their relationship with the genre, such is its brilliance. I sincerely hope that Tchaikovsky writes at least one sequel to Children of Time and in the meantime I may even try one of the novels from his epic fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt (2008 - 2014).