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A Small Bug in the System

Children of Time

By Adrian Tchaikovsky 

23 Nov, 2015

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Anyone who has read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ten-part Shadows of the Apt series, with its insect-themed kinden (clans) might well think that Tchaikovsky is fond of bugs. Unlike so many of the rest of us. Remember the neighbourhood kids warning you about earwigs? Those horrifying creepy crawlies that might even now be laying their eggs in your ear while you are distracted reading this text? 

You don’t know the half of it. But you will, once you read 2015’s Children of Time.

Centuries from now, the never-modest Doctor Kern thinks of the nameless world twenty light-years from Earth as Kern’s World”; she may not have terraformed the world, but she certainly plans to populate it with a species of her creation; monkeys infected with a nanovirus designed to push the primates towards intelligence. 

Everything goes exactly to plan … except that there’s a catastrophic, civilization-levelling war back on Earth. All the monkeys are killed before they can reach Kern’s World. However, the nanovirus reaches the surface. There, it finds alternate hosts on whom to inflict the Exaltation of Beasts. 

Spiders …

The few surviving humans on Earth spend a few millennia clawing their way back up to civilization — before discovering that the Earth is doomed, thanks to the delightful booby prizes the Old Empire left in its wake. Humans must flee, or die. In the meantime, the Spiders have evolved towards intelligence and civilization. They have also gained in size, as well as in that unspider-like trait, empathy. 

Even artificially enhanced evolution takes more than a lifetime. Tchaikovsky shows us the process through the eyes of successive Spiders. The Spider characters all share similar roles in Spider society, so are given the same convenient identifiers in each freeze-frame of the process. Portia, Bianca, and Fabian, the identifiers, correspond to Spider titles no human could say. 

While evolving physically and mentally, the Spiders face a challenge from the ants. The ants were also Exalted by the nanovirus. The virus never managed to imbue them with consciousness, but did transform them into an unparalleled menace. Even if the Spiders can deal with the ants, they will have to face their creator. Kern is still alive, loosely speaking, and still in orbit around Kern’s world. She has slipped into insanity, but she is still somewhat functional and still determined to see her project through to the end. Even if she’s wildly misinformed about what species her nanovirus is uplifting. 

Into this morass sails a generation ship filled with survivors fleeing the dying Earth, desperate refugees determined to survive whatever the cost. Thanks to Kern, the Spiders know that the humans are coming. 

All believed, in the last years of this century, that spider affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. Everyone knew that Spiders were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. All Spiders embraced the certainty of life on other planets. Across the gulf of space, humans regarded Kern’s World with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, the Spiders drew their plans against us…


Tchaikovsky palms a few cards here 1 in order to make his story work. 

The first is that it takes surprisingly little time to terraform Kern’s World. This may be because Kern’s World was uniquely well suited to terraforming. The other terraformed world the refugees check out isn’t as welcoming as Kern’s world: 

The image shifted to a much closer view of the surface, with the drones flying far lower, and a ripple went through the audience; one of bafflement, disquiet. The grey was alive. 
The entire surface, as far as the drone camera could register, was covered in a dense interlaced vegetation, grey as ashes. It feathered out into fern-like fronds that arched over each other, spreading hand-like folds to catch the sunlight. It erupted into phallic towers that were warty with buds or fruiting bodies. It covered the mountains to their very tips. It formed a thick, grey fur on every visible surface. 

The refugees might try to clear the land with fire, but Fungus World’s atmosphere is only 5% O2, so that’s not an option. 

Still, if Kern’s World is so well suited for life, why didn’t it already have some native life by the time the Old Empire showed up? Earth seems to have had life pretty much as soon as it was remotely possible.

The other palmed card is that as dangerous as the ants are, they are not conscious. so the means by which the Spiders deal with them is ingenious rather than completely horrifying. 

Now, selling spiders, even Spiders, as sympathetic characters is a tough job, as you can tell from all the people reading this who have nervously drawn their feet up off the floor as though that would save them from the invisible spiders poised to drop on them from the ceiling. And while Tchaikovsky does manage to imbue the Spiders with sympathetic characteristics (in part thanks to the nanovirus), they remain spiders; it says a lot that the rotating casts of Portias, Biancas, and poor doomed Fabians are in any way endearing, rather than inspiring the reader to smack the book over and over with a rolled-up newspaper 2.

Ultimately, despite the apocalypse that kicks off the main plot and despite the slow progression towards what seems to be an inevitable mutual genocide (due to the logic of the prisoner’s dilemma 3), this is one of the more hopeful novels I have read recently. 

But it is chock-full of spiders. Just so you know. 

Children of Time is available from Tor UK. Americans are, I am afraid, SOL. 

[Added much later] Children of Time is available here.

(Tor US and Tor UK are different companies; just because one carries a particular title does not mean the other will.) 

1: Also implausible is the Old Empire propulsion tech; it managed velocities close to 2/3rds of the speed of light despite being limited to fusion. Ha ha ha no. The refugees are operating with a far more plausible technology that gets them only 1/100 th of the speed of light. 

2: I bet you’re expecting a reference to Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky and not a sudden unexpected link to the Wikipedia article on John Brunner’s Crucible of Time.

3: When I read an SFnal discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I often get the impression that had the Cold War been in the hands of SF writers, it would have resulted in nuclear conflagration some time around 1950, possibly between different branches of the US armed forces. Tchaikovsky seems to have a bit more imagination than many of his colleagues.