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.
- A God Am I: Kern, especially after a few centuries of isolation and equipment failure. Also Guyin, 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Genetic Memory: The spiders enjoy this, thanks to the nanovirus.
- Good vs. 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.
- Insectoid Aliens: Arthropods, technically. The reader understands their complex society and culture. To the arriving humans, they are giant, terrifying, venomous monsters.
- 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.
- Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: Hard to very hard, particularly around the details of space flight and the sheer amount of time it takes.
- 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 behaviour 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.
- 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.
- 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.