Pan Macmillan, 2015, 600 pages
Adrian Tchaikovksy's critically acclaimed stand-alone novel Children of Time is the epic story of humanity's battle for survival on a terraformed planet.
Who will inherit this new Earth?
The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age - a world terraformed and prepared for human life.
But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind's worst nightmare.
Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?
Children of Time strongly reminded me of one of my favorite of all SF novels, Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, and not just because of the sentient spiders. It is a grand epic space opera, stand-alone (but absolutely worthy of a sequel), with flawed humans, flawed aliens, violent first contact and asymmetric technologies, inter-generational crises, heroic action and even more heroic thought. It's not quite "hard" SF but it's crunchy enough to be believable, and this book has made my list of favorites.
It starts with a colony ship from a ruined Earth, carrying what may be the sole survivors of the human race. Centuries ago, the old Empire of Earth destroyed itself in a series of cataclysmic wars, after having sent probes out to the stars and beginning the process of terraforming other worlds. Now, a sleeper ship has discovered one of those terraformed worlds... except that it is still guarded by the cyborged scientist/AI who began the terraforming process. Dr. Ivana Kern doesn't want anyone messing with her precious monkeys, whom she dropped on the planet below, infected with a nanovirus that would rewire their brains and accelerate their evolution. With the guardian satellite above the planet, she drives off the human interlopers, forcing them to go back into suspended animation and seek out another world. But she suspects they will be back, and she's right.
The problem with Kern's grand experiment is that, unknown to her, the monkeys she sent down to the planet didn't survive. But the spiders and ants and other insects aboard the probe did. And they were infected with the nanovirus.
Children of Time alternates between the POVs of the humans aboard the Gilgamesh, a doomed, decaying ark-ship on its roundabout voyage from Earth to Kern's world to elsewhere and back, and the POVs of the uplifted spiders who were once of Earth. The spiders were frankly more interesting — it's hard to make a truly alien species that is yet relatable, but these evolved arachnids, who have emotions but not human ones, who are curious and inquisitive and capable of violence but without certain human drives and so prone to fighting over different matters, in different ways, were the real main characters of the novel, the "children of time." By following them down through the generations, from evolved pre-technological hunters to city-building mystics who have learned to communicate with the divine "Messenger" above their heads via radio, the reader comes to sympathize with them when they finally learn the horrible truth — that they were created, and that their creators are coming back to exterminate them, and they must devote their entire civilization to a battle for survival against technologically superior sky gods.
The humans aren't entirely villains, though — they are just trying to keep the last remnants of their species alive, and how were they supposed to know the planet they want to live on was occupied by giant spiders? It has the makings of an interspecies tragedy on a cosmic scale, and the final confrontation between humans and spiders is suitably epic and the resolution does not disappoint.
Adrian Tchaikovsky (actually Czajkowski, but his publisher decided his name should be printed with a more Anglo-friendly spelling) is a new-to-me author, but this book drove me to his backlist to check out his other works. Apparently he mostly writes epic fantasy.
This is a fantastic SF novel. If you love Vernor Vinge, then you absolutely need to read this book.
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