Spiders and Spaceships: My Journey into Science Fiction

Cover art for Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Hello all, welcome to my very first post! Today I’m reviewing Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

As you may know from my About Me page, I have always been an avid reader of fantasy literature, mostly “high” fantasy or “epic” fantasy. Science fiction is a category that I have only very occasionally dipped a toe into.

My main experience with science fiction has been through television shows and movies. If my knowledge of Klingon is anything to go by, then I’d say I’m a fan of science fiction in these formats. I’ve always been fascinated with science and appreciated the clever use of science, technology, or futuristic elements in a story. Despite this, science fiction has never been my go-to reading genre.

I think the last science fiction book series I read was the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card. It was awesome! I loved the world-building and the way it tackled huge concepts like the development of religions and the nature of sentience- the question of how do we decide when a thing is actually a person. In my quest to explore this genre further, I picked up Tchaikovsky’s critically acclaimed science fiction masterpiece.

 Now that I’m thinking about it, Children of Time has several similarities with the Ender’s Game books. They both deal with a clash between humans and non-human sentient species, exploring that clash partly through the eyes of the non-humans. This strategy creates a lot of sympathy in the reader — a very good thing since the non-humans in Children of Time were a hard sell for me. 

The premise of Children of Time is that thousands of years from now, humanity has created a technologically advanced, but socially troubled society. While scientists are in space terraforming new planets, back on Earth there is a terrorist organization that believes technology has gone too far. This terrorist group manages to cause a war that leads to nuclear detonations and the end of Earth’s advanced society. As this breakdown is on the cusp of happening, Dr. Avrana Kern is about to begin her greatest experiment ever. She has terraformed a planet and created a nano-virus that will speed evolution. Now she’s about to send monkeys to the planet’s surface where they will be infected with that virus. She plans to wait in cryosleep while the monkeys evolve into sentient beings, and then establish a relationship with them as their god and creator. 

This next part is a slight spoiler alert, but it happens in the first few pages of the book

Unfortunately for Dr. Kern, a terrorist has infiltrated her ranks and sabotaged her experiment. Her capsule of monkeys burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. Dr. Kern sends a distress signal to Earth, and puts herself into cryosleep, blissfully unaware that an unplanned experiment is taking place on the planet below. All the other vertebrate animals on the planet had been bred to be immune to the evolution virus, but nobody gave any thought to making the invertebrates immune. And now the most horrible thing that I could ever imagine happening happens; a race of huge sentient spiders begins to evolve. 

Yes, I said, “huge, sentient spiders.” I’m a world-class arachnophobe, and when the author started talking about the hunting, jumping spiders, I felt the heebie-jeebies coming on big time. Then something incredible happened, Tchaikovsky took me on a journey through eons of time and let me watch this species and their society evolve. He made me cheer their innovations and triumphs and root for them as I watched them struggle in a sometimes harsh world. 

Parallel to the spider society plot line, Tchaikovsky also gives us a human plot line. The humans are the survivors of Earths nuclear winter who enter space thousands of years after the collapse of Avrana Kern’s civilization. They are looking for a new home and struggling to come to terms with the horrible history of humanity. Of course they think that the terraformed planet looks like the perfect new home. The main question of the book is what will happen when humans and spider society collide? The answer was very satisfying, but I won’t give the ending away.

The human’s story is compelling, and the human characters are well-drawn, but as I read this book, I found myself looking forward to the spider chapters the most.  I think that the highest praise I can give this book is to say that it changed my feelings about real-world spiders. It made me appreciate the real abilities they have that formed the basis for their successful rise to sentience in the book. 

Children of Time has so many layers to it. Tchaikovsky crafts a world that is at once believable and wondrous. His attention to detail is impressive. Not only is the evolutionary science fantastically and believably portrayed, but he also pays attention to the humanities side of things. The main human character, Mason, is a Classicist, essentially a historian who studies the Old Empire. We get to see the degeneration of human society through the eyes of someone with both a knowledge of the distant past, and an extremely long life that has taken him into the “future” of humanity.

So what effect did reading this book have on my writing? Well, it spurred my imagination in some directions it hadn’t gone before, and even gave me an idea for a short story. It’s also an excellent example of how to make your reader buy into something weird and creepy; namely, by creating characters that are so believable and sympathetic that the odd, creepy elements start to feel normal. I think this book is yet another example of what I’m coming to believe about writing in general: Characters are key. If you write amazing characters, your reader will tolerate a lot of weirdness.

This book was also very well researched, and it was clear that the author had done a lot of thinking and reading about the science and culture-building aspects of the story. I think that research is something that all authors should take seriously. Even if you’re not building a fantasy world, research into culture, psychology, and history will always benefit your writing.

I am definitely going to continue reading science fiction. My next science fiction pick is going to be The Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. This book involves complex mathematics that I’m sure will take me very far from my comfort zone.

If you’ve read Children of Time, please let me know what you thought of it. If you haven’t read it and want more info you can check it out on Goodreads here. I’m always up for recommendations. If you have a favorite science fiction book, let me know!

2 thoughts on “Spiders and Spaceships: My Journey into Science Fiction

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