Do you like spiders? I like spiders. I don’t believe spiders deserve the bad rap they get.
Some spiders are easier to share space with than others – like the seven-legged, fly-scoffing huntsman that seem to reside in every Australian household. They are good spiders.
These seven-legged huntsmen are often called Fred. Another generation, another Fred.
Do you know who else likes spiders? Adrian Tchaikovsky likes spiders. He loves them so much that he made them the protagonists of his very original evolution-based novel, Children of Time.
Children of Time is set in a future where mankind has started to habitually terraform other planets. While most people think that these new worlds should be terraformed for our direct benefit, not everyone is in agreement. Some people reason there’s more to Earth’s biosphere than just Homo sapians and a better alternative would be to just seed these planets with different Earthen species. Let life evolve on its own.
Then there’s Doctor Avrana Kern. Dr. Kern is more than a little misanthropic – she’s definitely of the mindset of ‘we are the virus.’ As the woman in charge of terraforming her own planet, she gets to choose how things proceed. And for Dr. Kern, her monkeys are more worthy successors of ‘Kern’s World’ than humanity is. On top of this, as part of a grand experiment designed to maximise the chances of success, Kern plans to infect her monkeys with an engineered nanovirus which has been designed to kick things along a bit evolutionary-wise. Afterwards, Kern aims to put herself into suspended animation – with the hope that her monkeys will be smart enough to wake her up centuries in the future and show her all that they have achieved.
(Look, I’m an evolutionary biologist myself, and I am giving you permission to just roll with it here)
But everything ends in disaster when a member of the terraforming crew, outraged that Kern wants to play God, sabotages the whole project. The monkeys don’t make it to Kern’s World, and Kern herself only escapes by prematurely putting herself into suspended animation. However, despite the saboteurs best efforts, something does successfully make its way to the planet’s surface – the virus. And with an absence of monkeys, it finds an alternative species to infect.
Everyone, meet our protagonist, Portia:
Portia, AKA Portia labiata, is a tiny, unassuming species of jumping spider. Goodness knows what their original role was in Kern’s terraforming project was, but after the saboteurs’ plot and their subsequent viral infection, they find themselves the planet’s dominant species. Like our long lines of fly-scoffing Freds, each of our protagonists retains the same set of names across history. So every generation, we follow the stories of little Portias, Biancas and Fabians; as their virus manipulated brains push them first towards sentience, and then towards civilisation. Spiders become warriors, spiders become scientists and spiders embark on fights for spider’s rights. It’s one prolonged black monolith moment, but with more pairs of eyes and legs involved.
Running parallel to this story is plight of the crew of the Gilgamesh, who are desperately looking for a place to revive their cargo – thousands of people kept in suspended animation. Although tensions between the crew are high well before they encounter Kern’s World, it’s not until the ship is rejected by the planet’s security systems, dashing their hopes, that things really start to deteriorate. This is not a story about humanity at their finest. If the spider storyline reads like an Authur C Clark novel, the Gilgamesh story reads like it was taken from the more turbulent parts of The Expanse. While the spiders are busy moving onward and upward, the remnants of humanity left on the Gilgamesh are unable to let their interpersonal conflicts slide, and they nearly damn themselves in the process. The cruel irony of this is that the main point of view character on the ship, Holsten Mason, is a classicist who studies ancient Earthen civilizations. Unfortunately for humanity, everyone’s too petty for a history lesson.
I loved every last moment spent with the spiders. You wouldn’t think you’d be moved by the plight of spider-trailblazers and spider-revolutionaries, but you would be surprised. And while the crew of the Gilgamesh is considerably less charismatic, they do serve as in interesting comparison to the emerging eight-legged society, one that allows us to ask ourselves questions such as: what do we consider a culture; what causes them to advance, and what causes them to fall.
Then there are the technical aspects. Children of Time contains many of the things that make me love science fiction, and its one of the best books of its kind that I’ve read recently. Everything – from the way the technical details are disseminated, to the intricate culture building – is a joy to read. The considerations into spider language, spider engineering and even spider religion, all fall together naturally. Especially the latter – there is something beautiful in how the sort of fugitive, curious nature of the spiders slowly develops into little superstitions and rituals before becoming a full-blown religion. It all just feels right – for a spider.
So for anyone looking for modern sci-fi with a very classical feel, Children of Time is a must-read. And for the arachnophobes out there – please don’t be afraid to pick this up and give our little Portias the benefit of the doubt.
You will feel a kinship with the spiders