“Well, now I’m going to have nightmares,” said my Laddie mildly, without taking his eyes from his Kindle.
I glanced across the pillow at him. “Why?”
“Because this book has giant spiders…and they’re better characters than the humans.”
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time will make even arachnophobes rethink their prejudices. Without spoiling too much of the setup, this unique science fiction novel opens with the premise that Earth is uninhabitable and an experiment intended to terraform a new planet did not go as planned. The result? A race of sentient spiders.
Don’t let the notion of spider societies put you off—it’s the unexpected highlight of the book. Tchaikovsky clearly knows arachnology. His descriptions of spider physiology, and how they interact with their environments, are so lyrical they enthralled me. The civilization he invents is both highly imaginative and convincing, from the biologically-based technologies to the inter- (and intra-) species rivalries. Social developments play out interesting parallels to human history, such as the often-conflicting influences of science and religion.
Spider silk proves surprisingly durable in supporting these weighty themes. My one criticism was the heavy-handed exploration of gender dynamics. Sexual cannibalism is well-documented in many spider species, and Tchaikovsky uses that as a mirror of human gender roles. It’s plausible, just overwrought, giving off the occasional whiff of look how cleverly I’m inverting culturally ingrained notions of inequality! Aside from that minor quibble, the spiders’ world spun me into its wondrous web.
The humans are another matter. While spider civilization grows more sophisticated over the aeons, an “ark ship” of surviving Homo sapiens plods across the galaxy towards its new homeworld…and an inevitable confrontation. Readers witness the voyagers’ increasingly desperate antics through the eyes of Holsten Mason, a classicist skilled in the languages of Earth’s “Old Empire”. We might as well have watched the ship’s security cameras. Mason has no personality traits of his own: no strengths besides his academic discipline, no motives beyond a general desire to survive, and no foibles to make him interesting.
Maybe this is my own authorial bias. If you’ve read my work, you know I prefer screwed-up characters. Some of them are so flawed they might not even be likable, but at least they have strong personalities. Mason was a blank sheet. Plenty of enjoyable books have an amiable-but-undistracting lens character stand in for the reader, but they are usually surrounded by an engaging cast to drive the story. In Children of Time, unfortunately, most of the other humans are as flat as Mason, without much depth or development. By the end, I didn’t really care whether the humans endured. I was rooting for the spiders.
Although the book ends abruptly and a little predictably, it manages to tie up all the plot threads in a satisfactory way. The compelling spiders make up for their tedious human counterparts, bringing a welcome challenge to the tired sci-fi tropes of arachnoid monsters and tackling grand themes with new (ocelli and secondary) eyes. If you’re seeking a fresh science fiction vision and can keep an open mind about the protagonists’ number of legs, Children of Time is worth whatever spidery dreams it inspires.