‘Children of Time’ is one of those books one devours obsessively and then mourns once it’s finished. Such has been its impact that I don’t know what to read next (apart from more of this author’s books). Either way, I’ve had to go off-genre and read a bloody thriller for my next book. Yes, ‘Children of Time’ is that good.
It’s a tale of hyper evolution that brings to mind classics like ‘2001’ and ‘Last & First Men’. However, where those epics took the whole of humanity as a character, this more contemporary approach uses characters waking at centuries or even millennial intervals on a bodged-together ark ship alternating with the results of a terraforming experiment that benefit from a nano-virus that enabled enhanced mental and physical development. That these results are not the ones intended is the great gag underpinning a narrative that is full of sly but elegant humour, itself an expression of a kind of benevolent, patient despair.
I don’t think it’s any great spoiler to say that when the monkeys who were originally meant to inhabit the distant terraformed world burn up on entry as a result of resonantly Trumpish stupidity on the part of those meant to support and protect them, it falls to the spiders who were originally included as a background species to take up the mantle of civilisation. And take it up they do, in a bravura sequence of literal and exquisite world-building that spans the whole book, from an early huntress using her limited allocation of neurons to bring down a bigger spider to the great leaders, scientists and revolutionaries of the later chapters.
The author acknowledges our implicit arachnophobia and then very cleverly turns it on its head; indeed, after a while you kind of forget that these characters are spiders at all, even when they get stuck in to very spiderish behaviour. Their cities, for example, are great forests festooned with web complexes and, latterly, organic machinery and vehicles. The many versions of the spider society are also resolutely female and this novel is one of the few I can think of (the later ‘Dune’ novels and, more recently, Chris Beckett’s ‘Dark Eden’) that presents a detailed, believable and sympathetic matriarchy. That it is in not in any way a utopia, without seeming unrecognisable or awful either, is another credit to the unapologetic intelligence of this book.
The ark ship is no less fascinating and, deep down, no less matriarchal despite the commander being wholly and, increasingly dreadfully male. The one they all turn to, the one they all rely on, is the crotchety, brilliant Engineering Chief, Lain. Full marks for depicting an engineering heroine; we need more both in fiction and life. Like the female protagonist of ‘Wool’ Lain uses believable and convincing means to overcome the banal but terrifying obstacles of her lethal, alien environment.
Lain’s story is entwined with that of Mason, scholar of the lost Terran Empire that spawned the converted planet. Theirs is a wonderful story, arguably more moving than even ‘The Forever War’ as they dip in and out of time, grouching, bitching and falling – literally hopelessly – in love. The same chapter sequence that contains a lovely climax in which Mason frets about not having his ship suit only to find that Lain, ahead of him now in years, has been using it as a shawl, also includes an even more devastating sequence in which two spiders in their species’ first trip into space run into trouble and must take desperate measures to survive. The resolution of this short sequence, in which the two spider characters, who share the names of their forebears (the bold hunter/leader/priestess is always called Portia, the too-clever-for-her-own-good sexy scientist is always Bianca and the trickster male is always Fabian), succeed in their mission but at terrible expense. The blend of foreshadowed and familiar spider behaviour with intelligence and noble sacrifice is made all the more beautiful by communion with their orbiting god.
My favourite novel published last year was Emma Newman’s ‘Planetfall’, which also looked at religion through a sympathetic SF prism. I originally mistyped this novel’s title as ‘Children of God’, giving an idea of the heft the author’s ironic but calm exploration of belief carries in this story. The original terrorists’ acronym is NUN; not a good start admittedly. However, as the scientist behind the terraforming project blends over time in her orbiting capsule with the computer system she has uploaded herself into she becomes an object of worship to the creatures below. That god and creations totally misunderstand each other leading to a spiderishly polite version of holy war is another of the great jokes here; the scientist thinks she is communicating with the descendants of the original monkeys, not the spiders who have a totally different kind of intelligence.
Similarly, the mission commander of the appropriately-named ark ship Gilgamesh, frustrated at mortality, attempts an upload like that of the ancient orbiting scientist with similarly horrific results. He believes he is doing the right thing and Mason comes to agree; however, the commander, like the scientist he seeks to emulate, has tragically gone beyond the ability of the human mind to cope. Meanwhile, cults in the human and spider civilisations rise and fall, driven both by the need to comprehend the infinite and also, in many instances, as a means of survival. The moral compass, we feel, is no less easy to negotiate than a journey through space.
I’ve referenced a few different novels here, not because ‘Children of Time’ is in any way derivative; it is wholly and satisfyingly original. Rather it is an extraordinary book that is easily their equal; one that embodies a joy in language as a means of expressing great ideas and even greater feelings, usually at the same time. This is my book of the year so far. Get it.