I like spiders. I know that's a controversial view, but I think they're pretty amazing creatures, so I loved the concept of Tchaikovsky's sci fi novel, Children of Time, as soon as I read it. It's not fantasy, which is my usual choice of genre, but I've just written a whole trilogy of books (out soon!) about bees, so any other books that elevate the importance of our planet's 'small life' are bound to catch my attention.
Imagine thousands of years in the future.
Humans, now a super advanced species, have conquered many worlds but never found anything else like them. A small faction of scientists, led by the brilliant (but somewhat sociopathic) Avrana Kern are orbiting are world they have spent centuries terraforming.
They are about to make history.
They have developed a virus that will accelerate the evolution of the species it infects until they reach human sentience. Kern and her team intend to send the virus down to the planet, along with a space shuttle full of monkeys, to colonise the planet. They hope that, one day, these elevated monkeys will look to the stars and see their human creators as gods.
But something goes wrong.
A vicious war on Earth reaches the spaceship before the plan can be realised and everything is destroyed.
The virus makes it down to the planet's surface, but the monkeys do not.
Deprived of the monkeys it was supposed to infect on the surface of the planet, the virus seeks out another host and finds ... Portiid spiders.
Over the next several thousand years, the spiders evolve and grow, their society developing as they face challenges, tragedies and triumphs. But they aren't alone, and their time is limited. Because the surviving humans of the war have had to leave Earth.
Plodding through space in vast ships, they are searching desperately for another home, somewhere else they can settle and call their own. And they aren't necessarily willing to share.
The concept of this book really hooked me as soon as I read it. I've spent quite a long time now writing books partly told from the perspectives of bees and I loved the idea of reading another book with not only a non-human perspective, but a non-vertebrate one! I've spent a lot of time raging over how little respect these most precious of creatures are granted by my own species, and I felt that Tchaikovsky's story, and what he was trying to say with it, might just have the power to save the world.
So, here are 5 reasonsI felt Tchaikovsky's book was really important, as someone who firmly believes we need to pay more attention to the smaller, many-legged inhabitants of our world.
There are spoilers in this review right from the beginning, so proceed with caution if you haven't yet read the book!
1. Adversity Encourages Innovation
'She is Portia and she is hunting.'
This is how we first meet the spiders who have been infected with the virus and who will become the dominant, sentient species of this new planet. This section is so brilliantly written, and I absolutely loved how Tchaikovsky builds a sense of empathy for the spiders.
Right from the beginning, the spiders face similar pressures throughout their developing history to those that humans faced: war, disease, politics.
The way they solve them is both intensely similar and remarkably different and Tchaikovsky shows how the spiders overcome and grow from these challenges.
Throughout the book, even as generations of spiders come and go, we follow the line of a spider called Portia, and her ancestors, all of whom are brave, clever and pioneering. We meet other spiders and their lineages, too.
I loved how the spiders' technologies and cultures grew from the many adversities they face, and how each new challenge helps them become better.
I loved the parallels Tchaikovsky drew with humanity and how he used his excellent knowledge of spider biology to draw comparisons with our own species.
I think my favourite might be the way he used the bigger, more aggressive nature of female spiders meant that male spiders were oppressed, objectified and had fewer opportunities, directly mirroring the way human society has oppressed women over the centuries. On the one hand, it was brilliant to see female characters with so much opportunity and freedom but on the other, I empathised very deeply with the male Portiid characters who had to fight, through their history, for safety and respect.
In all of this, though, the thing that perpetuates is the way that, every time the spiders face a struggle in the book, the way they overcome it ends up improving society for everyone. Humans are capable of the same thing, if we work together.
2. We Can Learn to be Better
While the spiders are evolving and developing on the terraformed planet, the Gilgamesh, a ship of refugee humans, is travelling towards them through space, desperate to find a new home for their crew. They survive for thousands of years by going into and out of cryogenic freezing and on this ship, we meet a classicist called Holsten Mason.
He's a strange character.
Older, at the beginning, than everyone else on the ship, he's somewhat helpless a lot of the time.
His skills as an interpreter of Old Earth languages are necessary, but he's treated with disdain by many other members of his crew.
And every time poor Holsten wakes from cryogenic freezing, something has gone terribly wrong on the Gilgamesh. Holsten faces crisis after crisis as politics divide the crew, factions form, power struggles develop into full blown wars and the desperate human survivors descend into a kind of madness.
In a way, the slow disintegration of the ship, and Holsten's constant struggle, is tragically farcical.
He looks on at the way his species hasn't learned from destroying their own planet, and continues to repeat it's mistakes.
It's both really sad and so ridiculous as to be morbidly funny, but it does highlight how humans continue to repeat their mistakes as time goes on. It makes for steadily heightening tension as we see the Gilgamesh travelling towards the Portiids' world, and knowing that the humans are not going to recognise the Portiids as sentient beings, but will instead try to take the planet for themselves. I found myself desperately wanting the humans to find a home, but also being terrified that they would try to harm the spiders. Tchaikovsky managed this balance so brilliantly.
And perhaps it wouldn't be funny at all, it would just be horrifying, if it weren't for the way the book ends.
Because I think Tchaikovsky wants to give us hope that it doesn't have to be this way, that humans can learn and change and grow into better versions of themselves.
3. Sentience Does Not Always Look Like Sentience
This part of the story was such a powerful message for me and I can only really explain what I mean through spoilers, so read on at your peril!
About a third or so of the way through the book, as the humans are passing the Portiids' world for the first time, a small shuttle makes it down onto the planet's surface.
There, they meet the spiders for the first time but, obviously, communication is impossible.
Panic ensues, there's a lot of shooting, and most of the humans make it back onto the shuttle and head to the Gilgamesh. Most, but not all.
A significant number end up dead, but one lives and makes contact with the spiders. Or rather, the spiders make contact with her.
Told from the Portiid point of view, we see how the spiders capture this human, who they call 'the giant' and keep her captive in a cage made of webbing.
They study her, observe her but cannot understand her.
The human captive learns a little of the Portiid language - enough to ask for food and water, but no more - and the spiders conclude that the human is, in fact, not that smart. It has a basic level of intelligence but nothing more and, once the human dies, they forget about her.
I love this sequence because I think humans so often do a similar thing with other species we share the planet with.
We assume that because their intelligence is not just like ours, that they have none, that because their language isn't perceptible to us, that it doesn't exist.
We've spent such a long time exploiting the other creatures on our planet that seeing this same assumption played out in another species was, again, both funny and tragic. It also reminded me that just because I don't understand a non-human creature, it doesn't mean they're stupid or unable to communicate.
As a species, it feels like we're slowly learning to show the creatures we share our planet with respect, and Tchaikovsky's story highlights how that newfound respect can't come too soon.
4. It Doesn't Always Have to End This Way
* Serious spoilers in this section! *
So, towards the end of the story, I'd already worked out what was coming. Tchaikovsky isn't shy about hiding it in the book. It's obvious the humans and the Portiids are going to end up fighting over the planet, and I just couldn't see away that my favourite Portiid characters and my favourite human characters were both going to win.
Which was very upsetting.
But what Tchaikovsky does with the ending is brilliant. He builds up the fact that humans are continually idiotic all throughout the story.
They mess up their planet, they have to leave, and despite the fact the world ended because of constant fighting, warring factions and discontent.
Holsten Mason experiences the same behaviours constantly while aboard the Gilgamesh: greed, power-struggle, anger, jealousy. He laments, time and time again, that human beings haven't learned. They're just making the same mistakes.
Which is why the ending is so brilliant. It felt like Tchaikovsky saying:
It doesn't have to be this way.
We can be better. We can grow and learn and change if only we have a push in the right direction. We aren't doomed to a future that looks like our past. There is hope.
5. Empathy is Everything
Of all the messages Children of Time leaves us with, I think this is the most important.
Being able to empathise with people (whether human or non-human) whose experiences are different from our own is our greatest strength. Empathy can save the world.
But only if we put it first, if we make sure to work on it, to push ourselves towards it. Sometimes, as Tchaikovsky's story suggests, we have to be made to feel it. But it's always a better answer than fighting, warring, bickering, attacking.
It's interesting that, in this book, the spiders are quicker to empathy than the humans are. Perhaps this is due to the circumstances of their evolution, but I did also feel it was, at least a little bit, Tchaikovsky reminding us that we aren't necessarily the cleverest, most sophisticated species on the planet. We just think we are. Other species are clever, too. Also capable of empathy. Also show us mercy and kindness and love, often more so than we show them.
So maybe it's time to start seeing ourselves as part of the world we inhabit, rather than its brutal masters.
I absolutely loved this book, and would recommend it to everyone. It's poignant, evocative, imaginative and moving. It made me laugh, it also made me cry (several times) and it made me think (a lot).
If you loved it, please let me know what you thought!
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