Children of Time

Children of Time

Title: Children of Time

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review by Neil Murray

Science fiction stories about malevolent insects – all right, yes, I know a spider isn’t an insect but an arachnid, so just please permit the collectivisation – are nothing new.

Gigantic mutant ants, enlarged by nuclear radiation, were almost a Hollywood staple in the fear-mongering 1950s.  The Naked Jungle had ‘ordinary’ ants devouring everything in their path.  Phase IV was a more thoughtful film, again with normal-sized ants that had developed a hive intelligence.

Spider stories are rarer.  Giant spiders are part of a lot of fantasy fiction.  Shelob in The Lord Of the Rings and Aragog in the Harry Potter stories are but two. Colin Wilson explored the theme of large intelligent spiders in The Tower and three subsequent books set in a world where arachnids have evolved to be in charge. Possibly the best is Triffids author John Wyndham’s little-known novel Web, in which he posits a remote island where spiders, normal-sized again, have multiplied enormously and developed a hive intelligence.  

Spiders don’t do that, you see.  Almost without exception, they are solitary creatures.  God knows what would happen if they weren’t.

And that’s what Tchaikovsky has imagined. In Children of Time, human civilisation is collapsing and an ark is sent out with tens of thousands in hypersleep, preceded by a starship containing apes and a virus that will gift them intelligence, so that by the time the humans arrive, generations of apes will have evolved to be their servants, and the two species will be relatively similar.

Things go wrong, of course.  The apes don’t make it and the Clever Virus ends up using spiders as a host.  The ark is falling apart by the time it gets to the target planet, and its passengers are riven by an on-board civil war. By the time they arrive, the spiders have bred and evolved. Both massively.

Mathematics

Children of Time

‘Science fiction should make you think.’

There are two interesting ideas that echo Phase IV.  The first is that communication by mathematics is the key to stimulating a species’ development.  Spiders, apparently, like maths. And yes, they count in base eight.

There are two narratives going on at the same time.  The first details the strife on the human ark, and the second is evolution of a sentient spider species.  The first is good, but nothing unusual.  The second is enthralling.  It portrays evolution of a few eight-legged opportunists into an advanced civilisation that we – and maybe others – would find incomprehensible and perhaps would not recognise as intelligent at all.

How would spiders communicate?  Tchaikovsky provides an entirely believable solution.  How would they develop technology? Well, spider silk (as John Wyndham took pains to point out in Web) is an extraordinary substance. Only a few years ago, a cape was displayed that had been woven from spider silk.  It took four years to make – intelligent spiders themselves could, I suppose, have done it in much less.

Inevitably, homo sapiens and arachnids meet. At the first meeting (‘collision’ might be a better word) neither considers the other to be intelligent at all, because each finds the other so far outside its frame of reference that it cannot even understand the other’s actions, still less discern a purpose behind them.  The second meeting is apocalyptic.  

Survival

The humans in their ark, you see, literally have nowhere else to go but the spiders’ planet.  They must colonise or become extinct. And the spiders are unique to that planet. They must survive, or become extinct. Humans, or a lot of them, have an inbuilt horror of spiders. I’m not one of them, but even I would prefer to avoid a venomous spider that’s three feet across and armed with fangs like poison-dripping Sabatiers. The spiders, on the other hand, have no previous concept of humans at all.

I won’t give away the ending. Suffice to say that it is the second interesting idea previously floated in Phase IV, in which one of the characters realises that the ants’ intention is not to destroy humanity, but change it.  

I read the final chapter of Children of Time, and sat down and thought for a while. Science fiction should make you think. You should ask: “Is this possible?  Could this happen?” The last time I asked this question was of my wife, after reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park – a far superior work to the film, incidentally, and the film isn’t bad at all. My wife is a genetic scientist, and I wanted to know if you could, indeed, extract dinosaur DNA from the amber-trapped blood of biting insects that had recently bitten a dinosaur. She thought for a while, too, and then concluded that it was a hell of a long shot, and there were many reasons why it wouldn’t work, but ultimately, yes, it was feasible.

If science fiction makes you think like this, and conclude that its ideas really are fundamentally sound, then it is likely to be great science fiction. I sat down and read Children of Time again, all the way through.

Review by Neil Murray

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