The Children of Time are going on an adventure…
Thousands of years ago, Earth’s terraforming program took to the stars. On the world they called Nod, scientists discovered alien life – but it was their mission to overwrite it with the memory of Earth. Then humanity’s great empire fell, and the program’s decisions were lost to time.
Aeons later, humanity and its new spider allies detected fragmentary radio signals between the stars. They dispatched an exploration vessel, hoping to find cousins from old Earth.
But those ancient terraformers woke something on Nod better left undisturbed.
And it’s been waiting for them.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Clarke Award-winning Children of Time is one of my favourite sci-fi novels. When it was announced that he was going to revisit the setting (it was originally meant as a stand-alone, I believe), it was music to my ears. The story is comprised of two threads — one sort-of parallel to the first novel (“past”) and also a continuation of that story (“present”). A substantial tale of exploration, hubris, and contact with others, this is a very good read.
The novel starts far away from Kern’s World, the setting of Children of Time. It is clear, however, that we are in the same universe. We’re with the crew of another terra-forming mission, who have arrived at their destination system, and are planning to get started. Humanity is attempting to spread out across the universe, to create new homes and space away from the damaged Earth. The crew has been travelling for a long time, and their cynicism has ratcheted up a couple of notches (or, perhaps, this is why they were sent on the mission…).
“You know what they were calling the terraforming initiative, when we left Earth orbit? The Forever Project. Because this is it. This is when the human race becomes immortal, you get me? We’re off Earth. We’re making new homes amongst the stars, whether the stars want us or not. We have godlike power. People will come here, expecting to find a home. They’ll be properly impressed by the jellyfish and the moving rocks and thing-what, but then they’ll start asking awkward questions like, ‘Which house is mine, then?’ I mean, you know people. We all do. Moan, moan, demand, demand, ‘We came thirty light years and you’re showing us pictures of tidal marshland.’”
In addition to the exploratory crew members, there are also the techies. One of whom, Senkovi, is engaged in some unsanctioned (or, officially-unsanctioned-but-indulged) experiments with octopi. Tchaikovsky’s fondness for other creatures really comes through again in Children of Ruin, when he’s writing about the octopi and their shenanigans (they’re delightfully mischievous and playful). This aspect of the novel allows for some excellent, light humour. I’d be amazed if you came away from this not wanting one of your own…
Pavlovian motivation wasn’t terribly useful for training an octopus. Once they were fed, food became a lesser motivator than curiosity. Also, when Senkovi had contrived to communicate that the game hid a shrimp inside it somehow, Paul 2 had broken the game trying to take it apart.
As can be expected, things start to go wrong after an encounter on one of the planets the crew are intending on terraforming. I won’t spoil anything, but it is a version of classic first contact suspense/horror. As events spiral towards catastrophe, the story starts alternating between the Past and Present, and we become reacquainted with the arachnid race from Kern’s World, as well as their human companions — the two have developed and continued to evolve in parallel, although there are also plenty of humans who have sequestered themselves away from their Portiid fellows.
I very much enjoyed the continued development of Portiid society and technology — they and the humans are working on different ways of improving communication and knowledge sharing (to varying degrees of success and comfort). That these scientists and technologists are part of the expedition to investigate the signals they have received proves both problematic and fortuitous, as the story unfolds. All of the characters –human or otherwise — are well-rounded and three-dimensional, and often endearing. You root for their successes and continued survival. I never thought I’d care so much about spiders or octopi…
This is a novel of exploration, evolution, hubris, and how disparate cultures and races can find common cause. It is a story told on a grand scale and timeline. It is intelligent, imaginative, engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking. If you enjoyed Children of Time, then I would certainly recommend you read this follow-up. If you haven’t read the first, then I would urge you to remedy this ASAP. Both of these are superb science fiction novels.
Another fantastic, must-read novel from Tchaikovsky.
Also on CR: Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky (2012); Guest Posts on “Nine Books, Six Years, One Stenwold Maker”, “The Art of Gunsmithing: Writing Guns of the Dawn“, “Looking for God in Melnibone Places: Fantasy and Religion”, and “Eye of the Spider”; Excerpt from Guns of the Dawn; Reviews of Empire of Black and Gold, Guns of the Dawn, Spiderlight and Ironclads
[To this day, I have no idea what happened to my review of Children of Time — I know I wrote one, and am sure I published it. It’s just… disappeared.]