Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time
How I learned to stop worrying and love the spiders
I got over my fear of spiders when I lived alone for the first time as an adult.
I could, I suppose, have been the kind of person who runs screaming to the neighbours, or calls their dad, every time a spider appeared. But I wasn’t, and living in a place surrounded by several large trees, the spiders were both numerous and gigantic.
Eventually, I had to acknowledge that their sheer size and the fact I could see their palps and mandibles was not definitive proof of malicious intent. Instead of riding into battle armed with a bottle of Flash Bathroom Cleaner and a mask, I began to learn the ritual of carefully placing a glass over them and hoisting them back into the outside world.
I wasn’t, though, pro-spider. I wasn’t cheering on the development of a sophisticated, arachnid civilisation from the sidelines. Not until reading this book, however.
I start with a long ramble about spiders because for those who are arachnophobic, it’s a warning that this book is unfailingly pro-spider. I wasn’t expecting it, but I did come to be very interested in, and excited for, the development of spider technology, spider society, and eventually, spider space travel.
In fact, I enjoyed this book so much I kind of wish it was the sort of book that spawned sequels. But it isn’t. It has other things to do, and I suspect sequels, despite Adrian’s genius, would scuttle into the territory of those giant crab books that you can find in used bookshops.
The story briefly touches on the fall of “The Old Empire”, suggesting human achievement reached the stars in epic ways but then collapsed under the weight of its own political struggles (rather prescient, really), then lightly examines the hubris of one particular scientist, left fused to an AI, guarding a planet where her experiment in the rapid development of intelligent primates goes awry.
Hence the spiders.
The book then shifts its attention to a crumbling spaceship carrying the last of humanity, those who have tried to scavenge the Old Empire for tech to create something new, and are desperate for a new place to live. Humans having made their own planet too toxic for themselves, flee to space.
While the spiders cheerfully go about their own business, humans slog painfully through the galaxy, undergoing the same tectonic shifts in power balance and peace as their forebears. Told through the eyes of one classicist (ahaha, of course!) who is repeatedly awoken from stasis to witness these battles.
Obviously, it all comes to a head when they discover the only livable planet anywhere seems to be the one with the spiders on it.
It’s the kind of book you struggle to put down, each chapter offering enough that you want to read the next one right now, and never mind that you need another drink or a trip to the bathroom. To end with a struggle where the reader is compelled to be on both sides at once (unless, of course, you really hate spiders), is a rare feat for a writer.
It takes a dim view of humanity right now, and indeed, finds humanity’s basic set-up fundamentally flawed (again, prescient), but it ends in a deeply hopeful way. Although only if we get rescued by some especially smart spiders.