In the far distant future, Dr Avrana Kern is about to realise her dream of observing the evolution of sentience in a species. She’s found the perfect planet, has developed a special sentience virus and acquired a shipload of monkeys to be deposited on their new world. But disaster strikes! The ship is destroyed on the way to the planet and Dr Kern, unable to return home, leaves an Artificial Intelligence in charge of her satellite and puts herself into the stasis in the hope of one day being rescued. What she doesn’t realise is that, although the monkeys didn’t make it, her virus did and, guess what, the planet isn’t actually uninhabited ….
A long, long time passes.
A thousand years (or something like that) later, a ship enters the system carrying the last survivors of the human race who left a dying Earth to look for a new home. On board are ten thousand people in stasis and a small key crew dedicated to keeping them alive. But, instead of a pristine new Earth, they find the planet now guarded by an insane entity that has resulted from a merging of the AI and whatever remains of Dr Kern’s consciousness. And that’s just the beginning. The planet is now occupied by a civilisation of giant, sentient spiders, with cities, warriors, priests and scientists, all of whom worship the AI/Kern entity they consider God.
The spiders are the best part of the book. Tchaikovsky has clearly put an enormous amount of research and thought into building an engaging, believable spider civilisation. I was giving regular updates to my poor partner, “The spiders are building a hot air balloon!”. Some of their story is a little ‘on the nose’ (for example, the spider male rights movement and the religious war), but it’s very enjoyable to read.
For me, the biggest weakness was the human story line which I found pretty dull for about the first two-thirds of the book. I didn’t care about the characters or find them interesting. I think this was mainly because the point of view character, Holston, felt exactly that, a point of view rather than a character. But later in the novel, it does pick up as the engineer Lain comes to the fore and the human story begins to cohere around her. Then it becomes quite moving.
I don’t know whether Children of Time is meant to be as funny as I found it in places. The spiders in each generation are called, for the sake of convenience, Portia, Bianca and Fabian, which is both ridiculous and oddly charming. I suppose we have no idea what spiders would call themselves, or how their names would be spelt, so Tchaikovsky just gives them names we can understand and somehow it works. The bit that really made me laugh out loud was the moment when the poor Kern/AI finally realises that she’s talking to spiders and not monkeys “why could she not see eye to eye with them? Now she sees their eyes. She sees all eight of them”. Brilliant! I’m glad to say, even Kern gets a decent ending, despite all the trouble she’s caused.
Overall, I didn’t think Children of Time quite lived up to the effusive endorsements on its cover, but it’s humane, hopeful and a lot of fun. I even had a tear in my eye at the end. Try it if you like things like Star Trek and hopeful, optimistic science fiction.