(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Adrian Tchaikovsky is better known for his Shadow of the Apts series of 10 epic fantasy novels. However, and although I own a couple of those books (one of them even signed by the author) and I've been meaning to read them for some time now, my previous experience with the author's work only includes a handful of short stories and the short novel Spiderlight (which I really, really enjoyed). Now I've also read Children of Time and it has only made me want to read more of his novels.
Children of Time consists of two main plot lines, told in alternating chapters, that sometimes converge at some points. Of these two threads, one focuses on the story of a spaceship in which we find the last remnants of humanity, looking for a planet to live on after the destruction of Earth. The other is set on a terraformed planet where an experiment went wrong, making a species of spiders evolve unnaturally fast. Although the part of the humans is interesting and has some brilliant moments, the chapters of the spiders are just excellent and worth reading the novel alone.
In them, Tchaikovsky manages to weave a story that has a distinct classic flavor. While reading it, I couldn't help recalling works by Hal Clement or Robert Forward and, especially, The Crucible of Time by John Brunner. In fact, this plot in which an alien species has to face some kind of global threat and only can overcome it with the use of science can be found also in more modern novels such as Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod, A Darkling Sea, by James L. Cambias, or Incadescence and The Clockwork Rocket, by Greg Egan.
There is also another parallel with that latter Egan's novel, for Tchaikovsky very intelligently uses the social and biological organization of the Portia spiders to approach interesting and important gender issues from an unexpected perspective:
Several of her closer friends are holding court there at the centre of a worshipful knot of younger females and fluttering, dancing males. Their dances are courtship rituals that they constantly almost, but not quite, consummate. Other than menial labour, this is the place of a male in Portia’s society: adornment, decoration, simply to add value to the lives of females. The larger, more notable or more important a female is, the more males will dance attendance on her. Hence, having a crowd of uselessly elegant males around one is a status symbol. (...)
The act of courtship is consummated as a public ritual, where the hopeful males – in their moment of prominence – perform in front of a peer group, or even the whole city, before the female chooses her partner and accepts his package of sperm. She may then kill and eat him, which is thought to be a great honour for the victim, although even Portia suspects that the males do not quite see it that way.
It is a mark of how far her species has come, that this is the only openly acceptable time when killing a male is considered appropriate. It is, however, quite true that packs of females – especially younger ones, perhaps newly formed peer groups seeking to strengthen their bonds – will descend to the lower reaches of the city and engage in hunting males. The practice is covertly overlooked – girls will be girls, after all – but overtly frowned upon.
The social and scientific evolution of the spiders is a delight to read. The almost perfect pace, the thought-provoking speculation, the action scenes... all is perfectly measured and balanced and, in fact, could have been and stand-alone story on its own. I did especially like the development of a kind of biological computer that is not only interesting as a wonderful idea but very relevant to the story. Also, I found the technique of using generic templates for the spider characters (Portia, Bianca, Fabian... this last one with a really appropriate name) not only very original, but also a brilliant choice given the social memory that the spiders share.
Compared to the spiders' part, the chapters in which we follow of the humans pale quite a bit. In more than one occasion, I had the impression that the author needed the spiders to develop to a point where they could interact with the humans in a certain way and thus made the humans go on some errands that were not that interesting. What is more, I found the main human character, Holsten Mason, a bit unappealing, being someone to whom things happen more than someone that makes things happen. Fortunately, once the two plots merge, everything becomes much more interesting and the ending is superb, tying all the loose threads but, at the same time, opening the possibility of a sequel that I'd very much like to read.
All in all, Children of Time is a very good novel and I highly recommend it. It has all the elements that I like when reading a science fiction book: interesting ideas, good pace, some action, intriguing and well-developed alien species and a wonderful use of science. I have enjoyed it a lot and I am looking forward to finding some time to start reading the Shadows of the Apt series.