As a writer with an interest in fantasy and sci-fi, something that I occasionally like to ponder is what a novel about a world with nothing recognisably human in it would look like. Would it even be possible to write a book like that – where everything is so far removed from our experience of life? I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I was reminded of it when I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s fascinating sci-fi novel, ‘Children of Time’. This post isn’t intended to be a review, as such, more an exploration of an innovative sci-fi idea.
I’ll try and set the scene for those of you who haven’t read the book. We’re thousands of years in the future. The story takes elements from two time periods, which I’ll call Empire and Fall. In the Empire period, humanity has expanded across the stars, and are beginning to terraform worlds (making them more Earth-like and fit for human habitation). An advanced scientific team went one step further, seeding a terraformed world with Earth lifeforms in a project that culminated in the attempt to send apes down there with an accelerated evolution virus designed to make them evolve into human-like creatures within a few hundred years. Unfortunately, the pod containing the apes crashes, killing all of them.
Fast forward a few thousand more years to the Fall. Earth is dead, and the survivors of humanity are setting out to the stars in a desperate attempt to find a new home. They find their way to this terraformed planet. However, it turns out that, on the planet, the evolution virus has been at work despite the death of the apes. Though it was designed not to work on other mammals (to avoid competition for the apes) it found suitable hosts in the invertebrates that inhabit the planet, and spiders and shrimps in particular have now formed complex civilisations on the surface and in the seas respectively.
Spanning hundreds of years, Tchaikovsky follows the development of the arachnid civilisation – their changing social dynamics, their uneasy relationship with the advanced ant population, and their interactions with the human survivors. From the book’s foreword, it is clear that Tchaikovsky had advice from entomologists regarding invertebrate behaviour, and used his creativity to imagine what a society made out of this behaviour would look like.
A recurring theme is that the spiders see the world very differently to humans. Though some things are the same – they remain physical beings affected by gravity, so their sense of space is similar – other things are very different. For example, their silk is a natural construction material, and so their cities are constructed very differently. They also communicate via vibrations on silk threads, which is very different to our own experience of communication.
The spiders are not completely ‘other’, however. Tchaikovsky explores the inequalities within their society, particularly gender equalities. Normal spider males are much smaller than females, and are often eaten after mating. Tchaikovsky explores the journey that the spiders go on towards recognising the value that males can bring to their society, and in doing so unmistakably forces us to reflect on the inequality that still exists within our society. In a manner that reminds me of Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Tales’, Tchaikovsky uses a narrative involving extreme, alien situations to make real, serious criticisms of his own human society.
Tchaikovsky’s novel ultimately seems to be about exploring the world from different perspectives, and the value that comes with having your worldview challenged. It is rare that you find a novel that attempts something as ambitious as Tchaikovsky’s ‘evolutionary worldbuilding’, but I have only good things to say about the outcome of this attempt. Sometimes it takes the bizarre and the alien to make you realise the importance of the issues that exist in the known and familiar.