Set in a future where the human race has mastered space travel and has successfully terraformed planets, Dr Avrana Kern sets up a bold experiment. On an uninhabited planet, a group of monkeys will be released and left to evolve, their development uninterrupted by humans. Rather than leaving the process entirely to nature, however, a nanovirus implanted within each monkey will be used to speed up the process:
Infected individuals would produce offspring mutated in a number of useful ways: greater brain size and complexity, greater body size to accommodate it, more flexible behavioural paths, swifter learning…
This enables the monkeys to develop over the course of each generation, rather than the thousands of years that evolution typically requires. One member of the team will remain in orbit of the planet, held in stasis until the monkeys have developed sufficiently to make contact with the unnatural satellite.
However, at the point of releasing the monkeys, the project is sabotaged, and they all die, leaving the planet without it’s intended inhabitants.
Centuries later, war and climate change have rendered Earth inhospitable. In a last ditch attempt to preserve the human race, the last remnants of humanity set out in search of another world to call their own. “Kern’s World” is the first feasible option they come across. But whilst the monkeys didn’t make it, another species has risen to the top, adapted and enhanced by the nanovirus. Spiders, significantly larger and more intelligent than they were in Dr Kern’s time, have gained dominance. And the two species are now on a collision course.
I went into Children of Time with certain expectations. I expected a war between the two species, a fight to the death over the planet and its resources. What I got was so much more than that. Whilst the two species do inevitably collide, it is a relatively small part of the novel. Rather, it focuses on the two populations – spider and human – and their respective journeys, which are definitely as important as the destination in this novel.
Children of Time is split into sections, each set in a different time period. Within these sections, chapters alternate between the human and spider populations. For the spiders, multiple generations are covered, allowing us to see how they progress over time. And I loved these chapters! Tchaikovsky has studied zoology, and his understanding of the portia labiata (the spider in question) is apparent without the reader being bamboozled with jargon and technical detail. One thing that works really well is that their development doesn’t make them more like us. There are very obvious differences between their species and ours, and whilst I can draw parallels between the ways that humans have advanced and the development of the spiders within the novel, they do it in their own way. For Tchaikovsky to evoke sympathy for a species so different to our own (and a species that has some individuals, myself included, running a mile) speaks to how well written the novel is.
The human chapters focus upon the crew and passengers (euphemistically dubbed as cargo) as they travel through space aboard the Gilgamesh. Woken from stasis periodically, we see them encounter various situations and problems during the course of their journey. These chapters therefore focus more on character development as the novel progresses, as seen through the eyes of classicist Holston Mason. There is a stark contrast between human and spider society, as human nature results in bickering, backstabbing and open rebellion, all sadly witnessed by the eminently sensible Mason. I don’t know if Tchaikovsky intended to paint us in such a poor light, but Children of Time highlighted to me that in some ways we are not so very far removed from the primates we used to be.
Children of Time is a brilliantly written novel that is both clever and fascinating. And the ending took me by surprise! I’ll say no more on this, but it was a brilliant conclusion to an excellent novel.