Do you remember Starship Troopers? That perfect 1997 classic about a militaristic future where earth has encountered an alien species so foreign that war is the only viable path forward? And did you, like me, wish you got to learn more about the bugs? This is that book. It’s like Star Trek: Deep Space 9 on whatever is more intense than steroids. This is Asimov Foundation series on super alien steroids. I *need* you to read it, and then I *need* you to come back here so we can flap about it together.
Plot: it’s far, far, faaaar in the future. The earth has been basically destroyed not once but twice, because we are nothing if not an industrious species. Round 1 of the destruction was caused by a war between what I guess you could describe as the scientific elite who wanted to “play god” by terraforming other planets both for human use and for the creation of new sentient species and the luddites who wanted to protect the supremacy of humans in the galaxy by way of violent revolution. Half the book follows the evolution of one of those terraformed planets – the only one which was successfully germinated. As with all experiments, this went very sideways, very quickly, but life finds a way. The other half follows the last arkship of humanity, the Gilgamesh, on its desperate, thousand year long journey to find a new home for the 100,000 popsicles they have in storage, fighting against the empty vastness of space, the inherently finite nature of both technology and the humanity that spawned it, and of course, of course, each other. Deep space shenanigans ensue.
The thing that I love about great science fiction is that it can be a perfect blend of optimism and pessimism. A truly great story about our possible future is one that acknowledges our darkest instincts, our capacity for self destruction, but also our capacity to learn, to love, to adapt to new situations, to sacrifice for the greater good. I find this radical empathy missing in most science fiction. It’s either just westerns in space (see: Firefly) or scientific papers with plot baked in (see: the Martian). These are awesome, but they don’t delve into the guts of what makes us human, and that’s my jam, man. Children of Time is all about what makes us human, what makes us family, who is IN and who is OTHER, the ways in which this type of thinking is both necessary for survival in the short term and absolutely fatal to survival in the long term.
The other thing I think Tchaikovsky really nails is characterization. On the human side, we’re following history buff and science-phobe Holsten Mason, who for the most part is just a stand in for the reader. He’s there for all the major stuff, but he’s not the protagonist here. He’s just a convenient pair of eyes, and through them we meet, sometimes for a moment and sometimes over the span of centuries, the people at the heart of the Gilgamesh. People with heartaches and dreams and very, very different views of the best way to direct the last of humanity. What makes Tchaikovsky an excellent author is that he manages to make these people feel real and multi-dimentional and even when they are obviously wrong, they remain sympathetic. He doesn’t let you hate anyone. That’s way too easy.
This is even more true with the spiders that become the last grand experiment of old earth. I don’t care what you think of spiders. You’re going to root for them. You’re going to freak out when things get tough for them, and you’re going to worry about their wellbeing should humans show up, what with our track record. You’re going to love Portia, an entire ancestral line of pioneers pushing spider society onwards. You’re going to love Bianca, the voice of reason and dissent. You’re going to love Fabian, who pushes his society most deliberately out of the past with intelligence and empathy and boundless courage. You’re going to love these damn spiders, alright? Tchaikovsky is going to make you love huge, scary spiders. Accept this and be at peace. And you’re never going to look at ants the same way.
This is one of those stories that is going to challenge you and your sleep schedule. And there are more in the series, so maybe just book some time off work.