When Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award, I took notice. When his fellow authors, many of whom I greatly admire, said, “yup, he deserved it, he’s a great guy and this is a great book” (okay, I’m paraphrasing), I knew I had to read this book. And I found it… interesting. In a very, very good way.
Some folks call the book “hard” science fiction, meaning that it relies heavily on real science, not just “this is the way it is and we don’t question it” science. I would take exception to that label. Yes, science factors into the narrative, as there is space travel and technology involved. But the science that is presented in Children of Time flows intrinsically from the story, played out with the actions taken, easily digested and obvious.
What is less easy to take – which isn’t to say a lessening of the story in any way – are the “aliens” that make a up good part of the narrative; or rather, the life forms on the alien planet that is the centerpoint of this novel. And honestly, it is the strangeness (yet familiarity) of these creatures that gives the novel its grounding, and some might even say, its humanity.
Okay, so here’s the scoop: the generational spaceship Gilgamesh has left a devastated Earth to seek a new home. Descendants of a world that has warred itself into oblivion, the ship is cobbled together from ancient technology. They seek equally faint knowledge of alleged star charts that will lead them to a fabled effort of terraforming in the hopes that they will uncover a world that has been prepared for human life.
What they find is far, far different. They do find a terraformed planet – it is lush, it is beautiful, it can easily sustain life. But it is guarded by single-minded technology overseen by a jealous, egomaniacal scientist who insists the planet is her own great experiment and not to be interfered with, not even by the last remnants of humanity. Her plan was to seed this crafted planet with monkeys, fitted with a nanovirus that will greatly speed their evolution, an evolution that can be observed and shepherded by the scientist, creating a society that will far outstrip the advances and failures of mankind.
The problem is, unknown to the scientist (who fled her own environ in the face of a mutiny, and now only partially sees her own existence), her precious monkeys never made it to the planet – but the nanovirus does. And it manifests itself in a completely unforeseen segment of the native fauna, carrying out its objective to speed evolution but working with raw materials that were not suited to its original purpose.
So you have a ship carrying the last humans needing desperately to establish themselves on a new planet or perish, finding such a planet but being violently kept from landing by a scientist who thinks she’s establishing a new utopia. Meanwhile, a different type of life is growing and evolving; her “children” have used the tools she gave them in a way that is so far from human understanding as to defy belief.
It’s a fascinating novel, one that effortlessly challenges a reader’s perceptions of their own world, and the world around them, not in what is, but what in what might be. And that, my friends, makes for great science fiction; indeed, award winning science fiction. Highly, highly recommended.