After writing a 10-book fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt, Tchaikovsky published Children of Time, his first science fiction novel. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award and it is generally considered one of his best novels.
Tchaikovsky seems to be well loved, and he provides much to love: he is even more productive than Alastair Reynolds, that other British commercial powerhouse. In 2021 he published 2 novels and 3 novellas, totaling 1,473 pages.
Science fiction is first and foremost a genre of ideas. Hard SF even more so, and while Tchaikovsky himself might not think in genres, I’ve seen this book described as Hard SF by lots of readers. Color me amazed that I found the ideas in this book severely lacking. My amazement only grew when I learned that Tchaikovsky holds a degree in zoology.
That degree might explain his interest in spiders, but it doesn’t explain the scientific bullshit. And as bullshit isn’t the only problem this book has, it will be no surprise that my review will be a negative one, much to my own dismay.
I really looked forward to reading this: I was promised some solid, original science fiction, with alien aliens and clever evolutionary world building. Even though I know blurbs and hypes should be distrusted, I willingly and knowingly walked into the muck that is Children of Time – hope is a nasty, bitter thing.
You can’t produce 1,473 pages a year if your game is the highest form of quality control. So I’ll just go for a lazy format too, and opt for a list.
1. Tchaikovsky clearly chose effect over the internal logic of his ideas. That’s his prerogative, and I guess it’s even the right commercial strategy. To get his story going, it was easier to have scientists behave in an unbelievable way than come up with a realistic mechanism to get the spiders evolving. Why would you seed a planet with a nano-virus separately, when you just want them in the monkeys you are gonna let loose on the planet? Why not simply inject the monkeys, and lessen the chance that anything might go wrong? This should have been an early warning sign, but I was still enjoying the book, so I read on – one needs to be able to forgive, if one wants to live a gentle life.
2. While the first 200 pages are quite snappy, with a pacing that is overall excellent, it starts to drag afterwards. Part of that is the monotony of the structure. It’s clear and consistent, sure, but the alternating chapters get predictable too. The other part is the prose. The book is 600 pages long, but easily one third of that is repetition. Tchaikovsky sure likes to spoon-feed his readers: a tried and tested way to beef up page count. I could easily skip a few pages and not miss any of the plot development. Some call this style immersive writing. I just call it boring words words words on pages pages pages.
3. The arc of the spiders isn’t alien alien. In the end, it’s anthropomorphic. Become smarter, unlock religion, unlock science, etc. Yes, they are different from humans as they don’t communicate via sound, and yes, their gender roles are reversed, and yes, there’s some clever stuff here and there. But basically, all the behavioral patterns Tchaikovsky comes up with are easily transposed to human patterns. Again, some readers might like it, as the patterns might get them thinking on human patterns, but to me, Tchaikovsky’s analytical powers were pretty superficial: I didn’t learn anything new about the human condition.
4. Speaking of humans, the human arc is a bit daft. Cardboard characters. Pretty unbelievable that they managed to build a near FTL-spaceship with 500,000 humans in cryo while their society has no grasp of basic principles because it is in ruins and never recovered from a total technological breakdown caused by some weaponized computer virus. And, again, sure, a highly advanced future society wouldn’t have firewalls and backups and compartmentalization, so indeed, some terrorist dude with mad coding skills could destroy the entire planet and its outposts with just a few keystrokes. And sure, that terrorist code wouldn’t work on that one sole satellite that has a human consciousness uploaded. Because that’s how computer stuff works.
So indeed – it’s practically a staple of a certain kind of science fiction – the humans on this ship often act as if they are idiots, and there’s also a kind of dictator captain whose whims are obeyed. But hey, actual real world idiots exist! People do elect crazy leaders! We are destroying our biosphere too! You can’t hold that to Tchaikovsky! Unfair!
5. The main thing. The bale that broke the camel’s back. THE BIOLOGY OF THIS BOOK IS TOTAL AND UTTER BALONEY.
Nanoviruses – yeah, right, *nano*-virus – could truly be programmed to enhance evolution in specific ways. They could truly start working on DNA in such a way that their hosts become better, faster, stronger, smarter. That’s how biochemical molecular processes in cells work! Tchaikovsky knows! He has a zoology degree! Who knows what stuff we’ll invent in a couple of centuries!?
But it’s not just that. The spiders manage to exploit said virus and use it to virally gift DNA that carries memories and knowledge via “mental pathways”. It’s the hard scientific biological backbone that Dune was always missing!
“Mental pathways can be transcribed, reduced to genetic information, unpacked in the offspring and written as instinctive understanding – sometimes concrete skills and muscle memory, but more ofte whole tranches of knowledge, ragged-edged with loss of context, that the new-born will slowly come to terms with throughout its early life.”
This DNA is consciously distilled and then gifted to other spiders via packages of sperm.
“Portia’s male scuttles onto the web and distils his Understanding of aphid husbandry into a neatly silk-wrapped packet of sperm.”
But who cares about male spider knowledge anyhow? They are just unimportant underlings on that distant space planet. So I’m guessing the smartsy females can do something similar and distil their knowledge in “silk-wrapped” eggs? How do they share this knowledge with others, aside via their own offspring? If they can’t share it laterally, why is it such a big deal? I have no idea.
Oh, yeah, right, later in the book they manage to just drink “distilled Understanding” and then “the nanovirus she has just ingested begins to fit the purloined knowledge into place within her own mind, accessing the structure of her brain and copying in the male’s memories.” But it’s still male sperm in the instance from which I quoted this? Anyone? Help me?
And mind you: this mind-blowing feat of biotechnology is discovered in the beginning of the book, early in the spiders’ evolutionary arc, before they manage tool use, writing, microscopy, and other big scientific breakthroughs.
It gets even crazier: the spiders use ant colonies as a kind of giant abacus to sequence DNA “from biopsy samples”. I don’t make this up. Tchaikovsky’s imagination was on fire!!
Also: the virus is woke. “There is a place in her mind where the nanovirus lurks and it tells her that all her species are kin, are like her in a way that other creatures are not, and yet the weight of society crushes its voice.” Tchaikovsky doesn’t seem to be able to make up his mind re: the metaphors he uses. Does the virus actually have agency? Or is it just a blind molecular process? I’m guessing the latter, but why write about it as something that has volition? To confuse readers? To make it more literary? To emulate the mythical spider mindset? All of the above!?
What else is hot in biology? Pheromones! Some of these spiders have some mad chemistry skills: a certain Fabian manages to somehow instantly concoct a chemical brew that specifically brings some ants “to the silk side of his chamber, where they cut a neat exit wound for him to depart through. After they are done, he resets them”. How could I forget? Spiders have trouble with their own webbing and Fabian couldn’t have cut that wound himself! Then again, I don’t have a zoology degree!
6. The book chronicles different generations of spiders, but using the same names for different spiders doesn’t make them the same character. It doesn’t solve the problem of reader attachment. While I can imagine some readers to get emotionally attached to the species, I couldn’t care less about the individuals, as it quickly became clear that they would end up dead at the end of the chapter anyhow, again and again. Tchaikovsky’s detached narrative voice didn’t help either. Then again, against the backdrop of cosmic time, we’ll all be dead soon. Never forget!
Ymmv & all of this is taste. Given all the accolades this book gets, I know I’m in the minority position – 81,750 Goodreads ratings with an average of 4.28 is quite an achievement.
So if you are the kind of reader that can stomach all the biological handwavium, and if you don’t mind huge chunks of repetition in your prose, by all means, do check out Children of Time. Lots and lots of people like it, and I can even attest the first third is actually good.