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Literature / Children of Time

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A 2015 science-fiction novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky which combines a convincingly alien society with a compelling story about the last humans left after the desolation of Earth.

The story starts with a brief glimpse of the human race at its technological peak: a society with the power and reach to travel to other solar systems, terraform worlds, integrate technology with their own minds, and begin a project to create a new intelligent race by uplifting monkeys on one of their terraformed planets. Unfortunately, it doesn't last. And then the real story starts.

Thousands of years after the fall of the "Empire", as the historians call it, an ark ship from a dead Earth is desperately seeking a hospitable planet to serve as a new home for the tens of thousands of people it carries in suspended animation. Their technology is cobbled together from what they could scavenge from the Empire, their goal is to find one of the terraformed planets that historians think may have been left behind, and the stakes are very, very high: they have nothing to go back to and no idea if any of the other Ark ships have survived. The green, growing planet they are approaching seems like their very own Eden.


However, thanks to one desperate, determined scientist, and thousands of years of patient evolution, the new world is already home to a race of thinking creatures - with a powerful, xenophobic guardian. And no, they're not monkeys. They have more legs. Eight, to be precise...

The novel intersperses the evolutionary and cultural history of a race of giant spiders with the story of desperate human survivors trying to find a home. You might be surprised by which ones you end up rooting for.

Children of Ruin is a sequel that was released in 2019. These books have no connection to the Shadows of the Apt series, except Adrian Tchaikovsky's love for (and extensive knowledge of) invertebrates.


Children of Time contains examples of:

  • After the End: Human society collapsed into a small number of survivors on an ice-bound Earth for centuries after the fall of the Empire. Even then, they were able to bootstrap themselves into another spacefaring civilization. Then the ice started melting, and it turned out it was filled with all kinds of toxic waste and pathogens that soon led human society to collapse a second time. All that remains are a handful of generation ships built to Fling a Light into the Future and try to restart humanity somewhere else.
  • A God Am I: Kern starts out a little too enamored about playing God with uplifted monkeys, but she becomes especially obsessed after a few centuries of isolation and equipment failure. Also Guyen, towards the end of his life.
  • Aliens Are Bastards: Inverted beautifully, with the help of the nanovirus.
  • Alien Kudzu: The terraforming target Kern points the Gilgamesh to is completely covered by a uniform layer of grey fungus from pole to pole.
  • Ant War: Early in their civilized history, the spiders were almost wiped out by the expansion of a continent-spanning supercolony of giant ants, described as the world’s first superpower despite not even being sentient. They’d dealt with ants in the past and even semi-domesticated smaller colonies, but the supercolony is so huge and so adaptable that none of their previous strategies work against it.
  • Arachnid Shall Not Kill Arachnid: The uplift-virus infecting the spiders enforces a version of this, allowing normally solitary ambush predators to form functioning societies. It is weaponized at the climax of the book when the spiders infect the human refugees with a modified version of the uplift-virus before letting them colonize the planet.
  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: Downplayed. The uplift virus increased the size of the invertebrates it affected, which means ants the size of fists and spiders the size of your head, but no larger. There are physical reasons why giant bugs don’t exist in real life, and the spiders are said to push the boundary, having evolved new features simply to exist at the size they are.
  • Bio Punk: The spider's entire tech-base, largely based around specially bred ant colonies.
  • Brain Uploading: Used by the Empire when decisions can't safely be left to the judgement of an AI
  • Decoy Protagonist: In a manner of speaking. Almost every spider story focuses primarily on a Portia with her exploits later being quasi-legend in later stories. While the seventh story begins in the same fashion with Portia as the main lead, the narrative and main focus shifts to Fabian as the main character of this story with Portia as the villain. Consequently, at the beginning of the eighth story, the Portia of the seventh story is forgotten while the Fabian is remembered as the Great Liberator.
  • Genetic Memory: The spiders enjoy this, thanks to the nanovirus. Called Understandings, it consists of both experiences and practical knowledge that gets passed down genetically. They eventually become aware of it and learn to exploit it - first by mating with particular males so that their skills get passed down to the next generation, and then refining the process until they can just inject that knowledge straight into their brains, making every spider an Instant Expert in whatever field is required.
  • Generation Xerox: Averted for Portia despite generally sharing the same names. Portia 1 is NOT the same as Portia 8. They run the gamut from noble warrior, scientist to religious fanatic. The same goes for the Fabians but is usually played straight with the Biancas (except for the first Bianca who is different from the rest of them).
  • Good Versus Good: Both sides in the war between humans and spiders are fighting for their survival as a species, and while both are flawed neither deserves to go extinct... but the cold logic of the situation still means that only one can survive. Or so it seems, until it turns out that the spiders have managed to Take a Third Option.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: A rather unique kind. One of the Fabians, when stuck in a high-altitude vessel with a near-comatose Portia and only oxygen enough for one of them, triggers her mating instincts - causing her to eat him, thus both giving her the strength to recover and saving enough oxygen for her to make it to the ground.
  • Hive Mind: A literal, and scientifically accurate, example with the ants, which are not controlled by a central intelligence, but operate as a single organism the way they do in real life.
  • Homeworld Evacuation: The human race has been forced to do this as the ice age ends... and releases all the toxic waste left over from the apocalyptic war that triggered the climate change in the first place.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The spiders who capture a live human study her in detail, but never realize that she is sentient, as communication by sound is utterly absent from their society.
  • It Can Think: The partially-uplifted ants manage to invert this. Despite developing sophisticated behaviors such as glassmaking and metallurgy, they don’t think. Each individual ant is just a bundle of dumb reflexes, and the intelligence they display as a collective superorganism is pure computation, using trial and error to discover more efficient means of expanding the colony and then improving on those means without consciously understanding why or how they work. When the spiders finally get the ants under control, they’re able to exploit this trait to create ant-based computers.
  • Insectoid Aliens: Arthropods, technically. The reader understands their complex society and culture. To the arriving humans, they are giant, terrifying, venomous monsters.
  • Meaningful Name: The spaceship is named after the mythological sumerian king Gilgamesh, who goes on a quest to defeat death and become immortal. Much like him, the crew of the Gilgamesh is on a mission to prevent death – of the human species, that is.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Played very straight among the spiders. For the majority of their history males are at best second class citizens who exist for the pleasure and comfort of females. They are routinely eaten after sex, and a female consuming a male outside of sex is frowned upon, but not actively punished. The shifting attitudes towards males forms a significant sub-plot of the book.
  • Sanity Slippage: Kern gets increasingly crazy over the centuries, as both her physical body and the machines she's hooked up to decays. She seems to snap out of a lot of it once she figures out what the spiders really are and decides to come clean with them.
  • Schizo Tech: Due to their non-human approach to technology, the spider civilization has a bizarre (to humans) mish-mash of technology. For example, they invented advanced chemical and genetic engineering before radio or even electricity, and Kern is baffled when she has to introduce them to the idea of wheels.
  • Slave Race: The spiders manage to turn the ants into one after figuring out how to "program" colonies with any desired behavior by introducing the right chemicals to them.
  • Sleeper Starship: The Gilgamesh is carrying a cargo of tens of thousands of frozen people, in the hope of starting a colony somewhere.
  • Sole Surviving Scientist: Avrana Kern is the last known survivor of the days of the Old Empire, thanks to a combination of Human Popsicle and Brain Uploading. However, she’s become obsessed with her uplift project, and when the Gilgamesh approaches seeking to settle on the only habitable world they’ve discovered, she doesn’t consider them human and threatens to destroy them if they try.
  • Space Elevator: A much simpler proposition for an advanced spider civilization, given that they have their own silk to work with.
  • Starfish Language: The spiders communicate through a kind of semaphore movement of their palps combined with vibrations made through webs or on the ground. Sound only registers as an incredibly faint vibration in the air, so the idea that humans are capable of true communication is ridiculous to them.
  • The Unpronounceable: Due to their Starfish Language there is no way for us to know the spiders' real names, so Tchaikovsky uses human names instead. The viewpoint female is always Portia, named after the genus of jumping spider that was uplifted by the nanovirus; the main supporting female in any generation is always Bianca; and the main supporting male is always Fabian. As the narrative progresses, Viola is a another main supporting female is added.
  • Uplifted Animal: The plot begins with a project to fill the galaxy with life by terraforming worlds and populating them with monkeys infected with the Rus-Califi nanovirus, which is designed to slightly mutate the brains of each successive generation of monkeys until sapience emerges. The terraforming succeeds on Kern’s World, but the monkeys never arrive thanks to the sudden destruction of human civilization. The virus, already introduced to the planet, instead begins working on the local arthropods, eventually causing a thriving civilization of jumping spiders to emerge, who share the world with an underwater civilization of mantis shrimp and a menagerie of other bugs made very large and abnormally smart, though not entirely sapient. (The other mammals on the planet were engineered to be immune to the virus so as not to interfere with the monkeys — its makers just didn’t anticipate it would be so successful in invertebrates.)
  • Used Future: Most of humanity's technology is based on scavenged equipment from the glory days of the Empire. It gets even more pronounced during the end of the book when the Gilgamesh starts seriously breaking down.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: There are no complete villains in the story; while some characters are more flawed than others, all of them are doing what they genuinely think is best.
  • Xenofiction: A beautiful example of the genre done right.