On the day – June 24 – that millions of UK voters chose fear over hope and ignorance over reason, I finished Clarke Award nominated Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It ends on a note of hope, because the opposing factions finally communicate and develop empathy. But it takes the destruction of most of humanity to get there. To be honest, I was rooting for the spiders.
In the far future, humans are terraforming planets, but rather than populating these new homes themselves, they plan to send down monkeys with a nanovirus in the hope of speeding up their evolution. Something goes wrong above one particular planet and although the nanovirus makes landfall, the monkeys don’t. Cut to a few thousand years later. Humanity has all but died out, from their own stupidity it seems (fact or fiction?). There are several ark ships – potential generational spaceships with thousands of sleeping inhabitants looking for a new home.
On the particular planet this ship – the Gilgamesh – comes across, the nanovirus has been busy. It infected a female hunting spider. Instead of killing a male, she worked with him to catch their dinner. Consequences. From 8mm to 50cm; from unthinking arachnid to sentient species, thousands of generations later, the spiders encounter the last of the humans and war is inevitable.
Tchaikovsky’s story is an odd one indeed. It alternates two stories in two time streams. In one, most of the same humans come and go out of sleep stasis to deal with the various issues involved in finding a new home – mutiny, potential destruction, a false dawn, potential love and offspring. The main character is a classical historian called Holsten Mason (he knows about the Old Empire) who manages to live hundreds of years but is dragged out of sleep whenever the plot needs moving along. The second story is over thousands of generations of spider evolution, featuring the direct descendent of the original thinking spider and her allies. The spiders discover their awareness, a kind of religion – their creator who is a mad human-AI hybrid is a satellite in orbit and communicates with them – that comes and goes, technology, and warfare (with each other and with ants). Other species are also affected to a greater or lesser degree, which adds an interesting perspective.
Not too keen on Tchaikovsky’s writing style, especially on the human story. I didn’t buy it. The characters spoke in the vernacular of today, despite being hundreds of years older than the dying Old Empire, which is meant to be in our distance future. The language and the characters just aren’t that interesting. I felt little empathy towards Mason and the last of the humans, which is a huge fail in a story about the desperate search for survival and a home. It almost felt like a debut novelist’s uncertain draft, pre-editing.
Which is odd, because everything about the spider’s journey was fascinating. Tchaikovsky’s ideas on evolution and these sense of language he uses are spot on. The arachnids can’t talk of course, but developed complex language through touch and movement. I believed the lives, the trials, the stories of the spiders much more than in the human chapters. The spiders had real agency and the chapters had something to say about tribalism, sexism and gender politics (reversed from what you’d expect), warfare, superstition and religion of the uninformed, and to a lesser extent, the power of science. Spider cities fight for dominance. The female leaders struggle to over-come their animalistic cannibalism when a male becomes smart and successful. Unthinking ant armies march all over the world despite the deaths of thousands. Strange signals in the sky are misunderstood and are argued about even when the meaning becomes clear. Technology only advances significantly in times of war and struggle. Great stuff.
And so I’m conflicted. A vote to leave means I miss out on Tchaikovsky’s interesting and eloquent story of spiders. A vote to remain means I put up with the dreary and disengaging story of humanity and its pathetic squabbles. I wanted the spiders to triumph and was disappointed, when in the last few pages of a 600-page book, hope beat fear, communication beat tribalism and empathy beat instinctive hatred.