It surprised me that I ended up enjoying this book; even at the halfway mark (300 pages in!) I was grumbling that it was so dry and unengaging that I thought it’d barely scrape two stars. However, the more advanced the spider civilisation became, the more interested I became in the story, and by the last third or so I found it a real page-turner.
It’s also one of those cerebral books that tries to provoke thoughts more than it does entertain. Children of Time is set deep into the far future, and is mostly about humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction. At the very beginning, Doctor Avrana Kern is attempting to begin an experiment on a terraformed world, whereby monkeys will be infected with a nanovirus to hasten their evolution, in the hope that this results in a version of humanity without the same flaws. The experiment is sabotaged by a member of her own team, so the monkeys never land, and instead the planet is populated by ants, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies – with the nanovirus taking root in the spiders. Avrana Kern herself manages to make a getaway while everyone else on her team is killed, and places herself in suspended animation, anticipating rescue.
Rescue never comes. The conflict that destroys her team ends up also destroying Earth, and nearly all of it – just excluding a thin band around the equator – is covered in ice. Humanity’s numbers dwindle precipitously, and as day-to-day survival takes up so much of their time, they lose the cultural and technological knowledge that Kern’s generation had. Once the species stabilises enough that they can build their technological base back up again, they cause global warming and discover that the permafrost had been covering oodles of nasty poisons. To escape that, they have to put as much of humanity as they can into suspended animation, and send them out into the stars in pursuit of a new, habitable planet, on a vast ship called the Gilgamesh.
The half of the book that focuses on the humans details the struggle of the Gilgamesh’s crew to find a planet they can land on. They find Kern’s planet, but the AI of the computer keeping Kern’s suspended body alive denies them permission to land. And so they remain in space, generation after generation, with the egotists on the crew plunging them into a series of petty, destructive conflicts and with the machinery of the ship slowly but steadily deteriorating beyond the ability of the crew to repair. The main perspective here is that of Holsten, a classicist who periodically comes out of suspended animation to despair at how humanity is falling back into the self-destructive habits of the Ancients before going back into deep sleep again.
Meanwhile, on Kern’s planet, a sophisticated arachnid society is emerging, and flourishing. Like I said, I found the first half of their plotline, where they’re mainly fighting wars against ants, really boring, but they got exponentially more interesting once they had an actual civilisation going. The spider society is no utopia – one of the major threads running through the book is male spiders' struggle to be given respect and authority on par with females (or at least enough that the females will stop killing them after mating for sport) – but the depiction is sympathetic. Honestly, it’s remarkable how well Tchaikovsky has depicted this society which is profoundly non-human, but still made them understandable, and even relatable, for an obviously human readership.
There are definitely some aspects to this book that some readers will find unsatisfying. The ending is a bit of a conceit, if a conceit set up from early on in the book – despite what the cover might suggest, this is not “hard sci fi” in a scientific sense. Most of the human characters are extremely unlikeable. The universe it presents is, mostly, bleak. And overall, its merits are way more that it stimulates the mind rather than grips you by the feels… so if you prefer books that you have more of an emotional investment in, this is not ideal. It is, nonetheless, a very accomplished book that I’m glad to have read, even if it was rough going a lot of the time.