A review by Nalini Haynes
A group of scientists are terraforming a planet in a solar system about 20 light years from Earth. At home, MAGA-types are fighting against science and they’re happy to destroy the planet to prevent scientists from sciencing. (Cue eye roll at “unbelievable” stupidity.) Anyhoo, Avrana Kern sees that everything is about to go to shit – or about to go KABOOM – on her tin can in space. As the narcissistic obsessed scientist she is, she makes it to the lifepod that was supposed to monitor the planet below then wake the occupant when the monkeys they dropped there evolved (via uplift) to a sufficient standard to become servants to their human creators. Only things go sideways, the monkeys burn before landing, and life forms on the planet are limited. But still, evolution is the reason for the Children of Time title.
I’m going to try to review Children of Time without spoilers after the first third of the book. So hang in there and, if what I say is annoyingly obscure, just read between my lines or read the book.
Please note: I recently received the third book in the Children of Time series, which had spent about 3 months in the post because Australia Post barely functions. I saw the Arthur C Clarke winner badge for the first book. Curiosity piqued, I googled. Then bought the first book.
Physical and cultural evolution
Children of Time uses human and spider evolution, starting in different places on a sine curve and contrasting with each other as their cultures and, to a point, their biology continues evolving. The spiders even develop religion, which obstructs their technological and social development for a while. This is an intricately plotted thriller-cum-epic saga, seeding tension via developmental stages.
Speculative fiction is a conversation with other books in the field
Children of Time evokes 20th century style SF stories but with parallel plots and subplots, varying tension and even climactic points within each act of this lengthy book. I suspect the stories for which Tchaikovsky makes me nostalgic would inspire the suck fairy to visit if I dared reread them. Children of Time seeks to do what Disney’s Star Wars attempted: to evoke the original stories, introduce the franchise to a new generation thereby engaging new generations of fans. However, Tchaikovsky succeeds in doing so without losing older generations of readers. Unless, perhaps, incels are offended by his well-researched use of spider biology translating into spider culture.
A drinking game could be to name the original source – or any prior source – of the tropes Tchaikovsky uses. Bonus points if he has actually read that source material.
Apart from the obvious space opera, cryogenic ship, generation ship and uplift stories, I came up with a few. Like Play Little Victims, a 1978 novella. Apparently I’m not the only person who read it once, in high school, only to be haunted by it ever since. However, apparently Tchaikovsky hasn’t read it. I won’t go into the similarities between the stories, but I highly recommend people read both if possible.
Another book Children of Time seems to reference is The Black Corridor by Michael Moorcock. I’d lay money he’s actually read that one just because Moorcock.
Complexity in spec fic
Children of Time takes the uplift trope and the absence of a prime directive to its logical conclusion then continues beyond that point. Tchaikovsky breaks the tropes and defies expectations in his very satisfying conclusion.
A space station is called Brin, which is both the name of the author credited with the uplift trope and, according to the Collins Dictionary, means “one of two filaments of silk combined by the silkworm to form a strand of silk”. This use of dual meanings is common in Tchaikovsky’s writing. He wastes nothing while never slowing the pace. He’s like the Pied Piper for readers: it’s impossible to stop, to leave the book unfinished, no matter how long the story.
Children of Time is, hands down, THE best hard speculative fiction I’ve read in ages. Admittedly I haven’t read a huge amount in recent years, partly because I’m too used to authors regurgitating 20th century writing styles as if they’re aspirational instead of passé. Readers expect more sophistication these days, which Tchaikovsky has mastered.
I counted at least two main climax points as well as other tension peaks during Children of Time but, thankfully, Tchaikovsky does not maintain the climax-worthy tension throughout the book – that would be EXHAUSTING! His writing has peaks and troughs of tension, always weaving his web, snaring the reader, leading me on…
Children of Time is riveting reading, weaving hard science, science fiction tropes and social comment into a riveting story. Now to read the sequel, Children of Ruin, and see if Tchaikovsky can pull off this standard of writing again.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Publisher: PanMacmillan in the US and in Oz
Format: I read the ebook but the paperback apparently has 608 pages
Category: science fiction, social comment