Children of Time is the first SF novel of Adrian Czajkowski, the author of the acclaimed Shadows of the Apt. In this doorstop of a book (over 600 pages) Czajkowski returns to the world of insects – not just any insects, but spiders in particular. And here’s the first disclaimer: Children of Time is a lot of things: a novel about the human race, evolution, religion, cannibalism, war, and the twisting ways to peace, but one thing it’s not: a book for arachnophobes. The titular children are a species of spiders, and more than half of the novel is devoted solely to them. Czajkowski loves his eight-legged friends dearly and spares us no details of their angular, hairy, multi-eyed bodies. He writes with relish about spiders jumping, hunting, weaving complex webs, eating each other and communicating by movement of their hairy palps and legs. Did I mention hairy?
Fascinated yet? If not, here’s a bit of information: Children of Time had been recently shortlisted for Arthur C. Clarke award.
Children of Time is a novel about meeting the alien. And it’s a double meeting: for the readers and for the protagonists of the book both. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Actually, not. In our own galaxy, eons from now, Earth and all other human colonies are destroyed in a vicious, no-limits internal war between two antagonistic ideologies. The humanity was on the brink of a civilizational breakthrough: the stars were just at their fingertips, ready to be claimed by the only sentient species in the Universe. The technology was advanced enough that terraforming projects were possible – and that meant an opportunity for an almost unlimited expansion. The great interstellar colonization would have been aided by modified species, exposed to the working of a smart nanovirus designed to accelerate their evolution according to a plan crafted by humans. Just imagine: you terraform a planet, seed it with a nanovirus specifically designed to enhance an evolution of simians, and when you come back millennia later you are greeted like a god by a civilization of your devoted subjects. Tempting, isn’t it? But the almost god-like powers humanity seized for itself elicited a radical opposition from a small, fanatical religious sect claiming that only God can meddle with the Universe or evolution. Terrorism can be a very effective weapon, especially when wielded in a technologically advanced world. As a result, human civilization had been razed to the ground in the war that had ensued soon after the first terraforming projects started. The miserable last survivors of the human civilization had dug through the remnants of the Old Empire and, driven by a desperate hope, left the dying Earth in search for their promised land, the terraformed planets.
One project in particular shows potential. The planet had already been terraformed, the virus seeded. But the monkeys that had been dispatched to its surface were destroyed before landing. In their absence the virus had found other species it could work with: insects. Arachnids, ants, sea dwelling crustacea… A world teeming with possibilities, especially for someone with an exoskeleton. A world guarded by [spoiler alert] an envious entity, a quintessential mad scientist inhabiting an artificial satellite orbiting the planet as a result of desperate cybernetic accident: a seamless, boundless merger of human and machine. Welcome, sinister doctor Avrana Kern!
The ark ship Gilgamesh travels through eons of time and billions of kilometers. Most of its cargo remains in stasis, frozen and stashed in the depths of the ship, while a skeleton crew guides its way through space and time. The weird half-life they lead, waking up in the empty space and going back to the dreamless sleep of almost dead, is depressing and destructive, seen only in fragments, disjointed pictures frozen in time. From rebellion to coup, to religious fanaticism, to scientific discovery… The human life is at the same time the most precious value and the most expendable commodity in the universe. There’s no space for privacy, individuality, personal feelings or wants when humanity’s survival is at stake, when the only thing that keeps you going is a desperate hope – and not even for you, yourself, but for the future generations. The life of one means nothing. And yet it is strangely compelling, described from the perspective of the only humanist alive, the oldest man in the Universe, the classicist Holsten Mason.
The clash with the budding civilization of arachnids seems inevitable.
That said, the storyline that is really worth a praise is the one devoted to spiders. The human part is well written and engaging, mostly due to Mason’s perspective, but in the end is predictable. We’ve had it all before. But where Czajkowski excels is at the creation of protagonists at once anthropomorphic and alien. The spiders are what they are: eight-legged, hairy, experiencing the world through a different set of senses than humans… And yet they are very human in their needs, their wants, their dreams, their everlasting curiosity. We are witnesses to their millennia-lasting evolution in a series of vignettes depicting an ever-changing set of protagonists, and it’s a joy to see it so aptly diverge from the human one. I very much enjoyed the description of their progress and discoveries, of the wars they waged and the technological changes their societies went through. But the part I appreciated the most was the description of the cultural changes. The advent and decline of religion, the radical changes in the social structure of their ever growing civilization… The reverse of the gender roles depicted so skillfully and in great detail by Czajkowski is not an author’s fancy, but rather a biological reality, a fact of life for the species Portia labiata. And a SF masterstroke, bringing to mind faint reminiscences of Haldeman’s The Forever War, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Asimov’s The Foundation series.
It’s nice to see the bad guy being a bad gal for once. Czajkowski knows how to create strong, believable female characters – in fact, he’s one of a very few authors who do it so well.From Kern and Lain on human side to Portia and Bianca on spider side – a plethora of well written, memorable females.
At first I had some doubts about Czajkowski’s concept of giving the same name to succeeding individual spiders throughout subsequent generations – Portia’s only one of them, Bianca, Fabian and Viola being the rest – but then the idea somehow grew on me. We are presented with archetypes personified anew each time. And even though I still think it’s a bit unfair to the spider kin, as it chips away at their individuality, especially in comparison with the humanity, whose representatives throughout the whole novel remain the same individuals we meet at the beginning, I understand where Czajkowski comes from.
Okay. That was the praise. What could have been better? The ending. I won’t be original here. I perceived the last chapters as a bit forced; a literary vehicle designed to deliver the premeditated outcome. It was… formulaic. Again, I realize where the author comes from, and what his intentions were, what he was trying to achieve and what he was trying to avoid, but the final result could have been better. Although a lot is forgiven for the bow to the sorely missed sir Pratchett :).
Children of Time is a good, solid, old-style SF with a few highly satisfying and very modern – or postmodern, depending on where you stand with the whole postmodernity thing – twists. It’s a tribute of sorts to the old masters of SF – and a new, strong voice in the genre of interstellar voyage. Spiders in space – that’s a sight that you won’t be able to get rid of for a long time…