Story Pile: Children of Time

I understand that when I talk about movies I’m asking you to engage with me on my thoughts about a thing that’s ninety minutes long; a TV series is often something you can whittle away at over time and isn’t necessarily designed for a scope of attention that covers a lot of time in its narrative or a long time in its experience. I’m kinda a pop culture boy, I do the wham-bam-thank-you style of things for having fun and maybe I’ll try and recommend series of books to you like the Tiffany Aching series, I’m going to do so mostly because every part of that series is a book that’s pretty great and can be finished reasonably quickly.

Not so for Adrian Tchaikovsky (it’s a pen name) and his epic science fiction story Children of Time. This book is a juggernaut – the audiobook is something like six hours, and those are not a breezy set of page turners. If I talk about a piece of media it’s often with the tone of someone who’s very confident that you can go get that media and check it out and then use that media to contextualise what I think and feel about it. In this case, I think that’s a pretty big lift, since we’re talking about a doorstopper of a book and I have an audience who exist on the spectrum between ‘oo shiny’ and ‘books bore me because I can’t use them to open thirty-five tabs on which digimon have been shown wearing shoes.’ Knowing that I’m going to start off by giving you a broad overview of what happens in the story, without giving away specifics.

If you know this book already, if you want to approach things without any awareness of the plot, or if you want a push to check out some big-S big-F Science Fiction and all you need is someone recommending it, I do recommend Children of Time! I liked how it handled the scope of its stories, I liked the kinds of things it saw as solutions to problems, and it did some things that appealed to me in very specific, niche ways. Particularly, it appealed to me with its culture of sentient, cooperative cat-sized spiders, and the war they wage on the last vestiges of humanity and how that gets solved.

That got your attention? The book’s full of spiders.

Spoilers ahead, but most importantly, content warning: Spiders.

Oh my word, so much, with the spiders.

Okay, your kickoff for this book is humanity is in the we’re-fucked seeding-planets levels of interplanetary infrastructure. Despite how badly we ruined one planet, we promise it’s because we just, you know, didn’t know what we were doing for the early game and now we know how to do a good job, all following a scientist on a satellite as she prepares to oversee the seeding and uplifting of a new culture of inhuman hominids – we have a planet, it’s picked out, it’s vibrant, there’s life, we just got to seed it with various lifeforms and then make sure that the monkeys win out on this one (as they should, you know, etcetera). It’s one of those story universes where we didn’t find any aliens and got lonely enough to make our own.

But the project hecks up who could see that coming, and instead of a serene drifting overseer satellite working to maintin the life of monkeys on this planet as they evolve into Humans 2, Now With A Hat, the chief scientist of the project who was, let’s say, not the most mentally stable to start with, winds up jamming her brain into a drifting satellite that’s there to protect the planet while the apes on it wind up becoming Different Humans except oh wait that goes wrong too, and the tools designed to uplift seeded apes that the satellite could then guide lands not on monkeys (the monkeys died on the way to their home planet), but instead on spiders.

And then, as the story sets itself up to the already-fascinating narrative of watching a confused space-god trying to chart a course for the evolution of a xenofiction story of ‘what if monkeys but spiders’, a wrench gets thrown in by the immediate second chunk of narrative being about humans on a long-journey colony ship, in the microwave dinner model of storage (you know, you can refreeze them but you wouldn’t want to do it too many times), as they try to find a new place to live because uh, yeah, humanity really did ruin that source planet. The story that follows this is a generational, kind of chunky-political drama about what different things humanity can do in closed political environments. That story follows a single character as he wakes up to do something, then goes under again, and the result is a sort of jammed shutter vision of a long-term political drama, a bit like the time travel stories you see in shows like Star Trek, but in this case the story goes only forward.

And of course at points, these two stories ram into one another, and bounce off, then circle around to ram again.

That’s a lot of stuff, and all of that stuff is kind of baseline interesting to me! We have spiders evolving a society and an engineer who Just Wants To Grill as he gets woken up for repeated different versions of Interesting Times, in spaaaace.

A thing that you haven’t heard me mention so far though is names. Remembering Children of Time I don’t remember characters by name. I don’t really remember these specifics, and I don’t think it’s much of a story that cares that much, truly, about the individual agent of any given scene. The ideas in the story that embedded themselves in my memory, the things that I think of easily in terms of wanting to share them are instead about worlds and worldviews.

There’s multiple times that religion develops in these contexts, and it’s treated as having zero supernatural or explanatory power but always some application for social cohesion. There’s a long-running feminist narrative in the story about the dissolution of a simplified vision of patriarchy. Computers made of ants! The ways your worldview changes based on the ways you can engage with the world! The conception of disability as social construct! A full Indiana-Jones style raid against the Implacable Other and it’s done with spiders! Talking To Your Weird Space Mom and convincing her that regardless of if you were Assigned Monkey At Birth, you’re definitely a spider.

It’s strange that I can’t even necessarily conjure to mind the specifics of how it’s written. It’s not much that I can remember specific phrases or text, but I absolutely can think of ideas it establishes.

Cool book, I liked it a lot. And here, I’d like to leave you by telling you my favourite thing about it, but know that doing so involves knowing how the story ends. And I cared about the ending, there were characters involved who I did not want to die and they were all lined up to kill, fight, and die, and it could all go dreadfully wrong. The thing that draws it to a safe conclusion, where the tension of oh no it’s all going wrong, is an instance of humanity being infected with its own ideology.

Then they have to work out what that means.

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