Children of Time | Adrian Tchaikovsky | 2015, Pb 2016 | Tor/Pan | 480p | Review book | Buy the book
With the Earth in decline, scientists have been sent out into the solar system and beyond to terraform planets for mankind’s survival. Dr Avrana Kern is such a scientist. She orbits her newly green world, Kern’s World, ready to drop down to it a virus that will radically expedite the evolution of its animal inhabitants so that one day in the future they will be ready to receive their human masters. But everything goes wrong. Kern’s vessel is sabotaged, the intended animals aren’t dropped. The revolutionary virus is left to work its magic on the most unexpected of species, Kern herself is left to orbit the planet for generations. She sleeps but her consciousness is merged with the ship, watching for anything that threatens the evolution of her world.
Many years later, Earth is done. Finally, years after the desolation of their planet, humans are able to scrape together the resources and technology to send generation ships to the stars, on the hunt for the fabled terraformed planets, in the footsteps of ‘the ancients’, dreaming of a safe haven. The Gilgamesh approaches Kern’s World and they are met with hostility and the threat of deadly force. Over many hundreds of years Avrana Kern has become something else, the fierce protector of her world, ready to listen to nothing but a voice of understanding from the evolved life on the planet. The mission of historian Holsten aboard the Gilgamesh is to interpret the messages from Kern, to give them their context, to help guide captain Guyen and his crew to a safe berth. It’s not to be. Kern is watching, her ship’s sophisticated weaponry is primed, the Gilgamesh is desperate, and down on the planet something extraordinary is happening.
Children of Time is, without doubt, a standout novel of the year. It’s one of those rare books that manages to combine accessible, compelling storytelling with vast ideas and themes that mesmerise the reader and stay with them long after the novel is finished. It covers many, many hundreds of years and it manages to keep the immediacy of the journey through time by enabling the key crew members to survive aboard the Gilgamesh by existing through cycles of sleep and wakefulness. The ship contains precious cargo, thousands of Earth’s last human inhabitants, but we meet only a few of them. As they sleep and wake we watch them age, some more than others, their relationships changing, all observed by Holsten. This is fascinating. Holsten wakes only intermittently and when he does everything can have shifted. Human life survives aboard the Gilgamesh and therefore ship government is scarred by rebellion, revolt and appeasement.
Even more compelling, though, is life on the planet. As humanity effectively devolves aboard the Gilgamesh, decreasing in numbers, becoming increasingly desperate and frightened, other life is evolving on Kern’s World. As the generations of life on the planet pass by, descendants retain the names of their ancestors. This enables us to stay close to these alien beings – spiders, but not as we know them – to sympathise with them, fear for them, as they undergo the rise and fall of civilisations, the discovery of religion, the flowering of love and selflessness, the insistence of war, and the depths of despair and annihilation. This is extremely powerful. The beings we meet, led by Portia, may be unattractive to human eyes – providing a shock to Kern once she discovers their rise – but, without doubt, this is the most involving element of the novel. I was captivated by it.
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s worldbuilding is utterly superb. He creates a planet full of life so different to what we know. The complexity of animal society as presented here is extraordinary. The planet is beautiful but deadly and all the time we are aware of the poor humans in the sky above so in need of a safe harbour. As one race evolves and another becomes more desperate we can only hope that there comes a time when both can meet. The survival of the human species depends on it.
Children of Time perfectly combines hard science fiction with something fantastical and grand. Life in space contrasts starkly with evolving life among the planet’s forests and in its seas, with chapters alternating between space and the planet. The role of Kern herself is also fascinating – madness, religion, hope and despair meet in Kern’s relationship with the inhabitants of the planet below but even the position of God isn’t stable.
Adrian Tchaikovsky has created a fabulous novel, worthy of its extraordinary worlds. It is such a hard book to put down, it becomes a vital part of the reader’s day. I dreamt about it more than once. It is beautifully written, its imaginative scope is vast and its voice is powerful. I loved Children of Time so much and I have no doubt that it will be among my top novels of 2015, its characters – especially Portia – staying with me for a long, long time.
With C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year