I do not much like spiders. I don’t know why. When I was younger I used to be fascinated by them because, of course, Spiderman was a big part of my childhood. But then I grew out of that particular phase, going so far as to prefer the Marvel movies, which are generally more irreverent about the whole Saving-The-World lark than the dark DC ones.
But Spiderman has now apparently come home, and I’m no longer 12. So now I don’t like spiders all that much. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time has got humongous spiders in it. Well.
The premise is simple enough. Earth bad. People worse. Much conflict. And very near the beginning of the book, the whole thing sort of snuffs itself out. By ‘the whole thing’ I mean all the planets and moons that humanity has colonised. Yes, that far in the future. So yes, we have a little bit of time yet. In fact most of the humans in the book are from so far in the future that the collapsed civilisation is referred to as quite a long lost generation, whose technologies and culture are studied by people called ‘classicists’. All this and more information is direly laid out in the initial pages. It doesn’t feel like a data dump however, which explains why I read past Chapter 1, large arachnids notwithstanding.
But we’re not supposed to look there. We’re supposed to be looking at a science experiment on a planetary scale. Dr. Kern is the lady who came up with the idea, lobbied for it, and generally got it off terra firma. She had a nanovirus developed which essentially speeds up evolution. Then she added a spaceship sized can of monkeys—yes, monkeys— to the mix. The plan was to drop the two ingredients onto a perfectly terraformed exoplanet, where, the monkeys would eventually be raised in evolutionary and intellectual terms (the correct SFF word is ‘uplifted’) to human standards. And then hopefully, one day they would have the technology to detect a series of mathematical problems a la high school being transmitted at them from a moving star: the satellite in which Kern and her crew would be hibernating for the intervening millennia. When the primitives would eventually invent radio and receive as well as solve the transmitted exam, and, crucially, transmit the answers back, their reply would wake Kern from her cold slumber so that she could then guide them onward, and eventually outward.
Because that is the beginning of the story, obviously the plan doesn’t work. It is sabotaged by a fundamentalist group member who messes the whole thing up and even destroys the actual space station. Kern, however, manages to get away in an escape pod, from within which, she must try to keep her plan from falling apart.
Now the thing is, in the initial messing up, the can of monkeys blew up in reentry. No monkeys, no plan. The nanovirus would endure, but what would it now affect? The answer, as it should be obvious to anyone, is spiders. The quaintly named Portia labiata specifically.
If you do a little reading on this particular species of spider, if you are interested, that is, you’ll find that the critters are really smart as they are. Factor in the nanovirus and it becomes a case of ‘don’t tell me!’. But the way Mr. Tchaikovsky has gone about the difficult business of uplifting spiders is really, there is probably no other word for it, beautiful.
You must understand that spider anatomy is not like our own in very many ways. I mean the things have eight legs and as many eyes. No sense of hearing. Silk-spinning abilities. Large fangs. This sounds like your garden variety monster spider. I am in awe of the author then, that he gave the spiders a culture. And this is the most fascinating bit about this whole situation. I actually wanted to skip past the chapters focussing on the humans in the freight-spaceship called the Gilgamesh full of the medically frozen last vestiges of mankind, and go straight to reading what was happening on Kern’s planet.
For me, this concept trumps all the rest of the things in the book. Despite the fact that we’re talking about literally a whole planet strewn with supersized spiderwebs and supersized, well, many arthropods really, including ants and the like. I mean, the idea that spiders, whose version of cuddling after copulation involves the male becoming a quick snack, spiders who learn to communicate, develop a language, go to inter-species war with and eventually learn to control ants, who eventually develop radio, become capable of thinking of Kern’s intelligence test as simple math and actually go into space (!!!), spiders who, in fact, deserve the pronoun ‘who’ and not ‘which’, is remarkable. You have to understand that, as the author notes, a spider’s worldview would be radically different from our own, nigh unrecognisable to those feeble things who have only four limbs and precisely zero venomous fangs.
Of course, I suppose the point of the novel is how that shipload of people react to finding an awesome new home planet, being turned away by a slightly deranged Dr. Kern, move on only to find no more awesomeness, and return to Kern’s planet, looking to inhabit it or die trying (because that is what it must come to). And that dynamic is certainly not uninteresting.
The captain of the ship apparently has all the right skills, but does a desire to upload oneself onto a computer and become immortal count as a leadership quality? Certainly I, as the audience of the third-person omniscient voice, became frustrated in at least one instance by the indecisive nature of unnecessarily internal monologue of the Gilgamesh’s resident classicist, who is the only person who can adequately understand the language of the ancients, the one which Kern calls her native tongue.
The book itself has won Tchaikovsky the Arthur C. Clarke award last year, so it is obviously good. But proof of this goodness is that I still do not like spiders, but in that inevitable, final battle between the humans of the Gilgamesh and the spiders of Kern’s planet, I still found myself hoping that the spiders would prevail. And I came out of said battle quite proud of my choice, because…well, you should probably find out on your own.
The question for us in the end turns out to be whether we can entertain the notion that something like a spider can be as sapient as us. Can they be as smart, empathetic, thoughtful? But we forget that perhaps they can be better.
In 800 odd pages, there were only so many instances where the humans had my sympathy, most of which, oddly enough, was directed at the young, tentative creepy-crawly world of Kern’s planet, which in a hopeful flourishing finish made its first move to go looking, in the vein of repeating its short history, for the source of another signal which may be, just maybe, indication that the people of the original Earth have, at long last, thought to look up and wonder again, that they have finally been uplifted.