– By J.W. Fox –
Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time is a smart, detailed hard science fiction story akin to Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep or Charles Stross’s Glasshouse. Like those classics, this 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner contains some of the best world-building around. It is brilliantly crafted with just enough detail to bring the author’s vision to life without drowning you in technical jargon. Although it is slow and on the dry side, it will satisfy hard science fiction readers.
Doctor Avrana Kern is the lead researcher on a new planetary experiment that involves placing a group of bio-engineered monkeys on a terraformed planet to examine their evolutionary development. Her monkeys have a nanovirus that pushes evolutionary changes along.
Then everything goes wrong.
A religious fundamentalist group destroys the terraforming ship and nearly kills Kern. She survives by putting herself in stasis aboard the research satellite orbiting the experiment planet. The fundamentalist attack is part of a broader campaign to destroy humanity’s terraforming and colonization efforts across the stars. A brutal war follows leaving Earth a barren wasteland. Centuries later, the survivors of the war pack on to an ark ship and stumble across Kern (who is in stasis) and her experiment. By then, the experiment has gone awry and evolution has not taken the path Kern intended.
The sheer scale of the novel is awesome. The story spans centuries but manages to follow the same characters through that time. In one plot line, the human characters go in and out of stasis, allowing them to live centuries to travel among the stars, and witness the evolutionary changes on Kern’s world. The second plot line follows the emerging sentience among the animals in Kern’s experiment. To develop and present such a story the novel includes technologies like genetic engineering, evolutionary biology, zoology, space travel, stasis, and terraforming. The world-building is impressively well-crafted. No significant inconsistencies or holes are detectable.
The parallel plot lines show two species going in different directions. The once advanced human civilization collapses thanks to religious warfare. The survivors are similar to the peoples of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. They know only stories of their ancestors, that they were an advanced powerful civilization that fell. The last generation of humans are far less sophisticated and seem to only have practical knowledge and skills, i.e. engineering. They seem to know just enough to keep the ark ship running.
The second plot line follows the rise of Kern’s engineered species from apex predator to intelligent, sentient master of Kern’s world. A new civilization emerges, one that is progressing out of darkness towards enlightenment. When the two species meet, one is falling towards barbarism while the other is about to enter the space age.
The author goes to great lengths to depict human nature as flawed and barbaric but presents an incomplete picture of what went wrong. How did the Dark Ages begin? How do they endure? The apocalyptic war happens “off screen” with no detail or insight given from the characters. The human characters resemble stereotypical blue-collar laborers: crude, vulgar, poorly educated, and unruly. The novel does not explain or demonstrate why survivors came to be that way.
It is a little strange, given that they do have obvious intelligence and superior knowledge of science and engineering. How else could they keep the ark ship running for centuries?
The implicitly superior species on Kern’s World resemble ancient human civilizations. There are rigid social hierarchies, barbaric mating practices, and slavery. They are naturally curious, clever, and embark upon an accelerated path toward modernity thanks to Kern’s nanovirus. Kern herself, who is featured sporadically throughout the novel, viciously criticizing humanity while admiring her own creations. However, the author’s attempts to portray them as noble savages was not effective. The noble aspects of their nature just weren’t compelling.
Gender inequality is given a unique spin in the novel, which was in a way fascinating but also unsubtle. Kern’s civilization is matriarchal. The females are the stronger of the two genders, nearly twice the size as the males who are treated as second class citizens or mere slaves. They are killed regularly without consequences, used for breeding then discarded, but do later rise to challenge their unjust and discriminatory society. The female supremacy and male submission is hit on constantly as if the author was enjoying the turnabout.
If the novel was meant to critique human civilization by using a new alternate civilization, it did not succeed. Both presented were flawed. Their differing outcomes had a lot to do with Kern’s interference and their differing stages of technological development. Kern’s civilization was imaginative, well-constructed, and interesting to read about but the subtle meaning just didn’t land.
In the end, the critique of human nature and civilization was not as compelling as it could have been. The fascinating world-building and climax of the novel really make it a worthwhile read. At the same time, Children of Time is not for everyone. To really get the most out of it, readers need to be patient and committed. It has a very deliberate pace for 600 pages and is particularly slow in the early chapters. The characters do not develop or become compelling until much later in the novel. If you enjoy authors like Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross, and Ian McDonald, you will enjoy this one. Otherwise, it is a tough read.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.