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Literature / Children of Time (2015)
aka: 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 and Children of Memory are sequels released in 2019 and 2022, respectively. 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.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The novel ends with the descendants of humans and spiders, setting off to explore a signal from another solar system.
  • 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. It's only when the spiders manage to send her a picture, demonstrating that they are not monkeys and she has seriously misunderstood the situation, that she eats a dose of humble pie. She apologizes to the spiders and answers their questions calmly.
    • Guyen, the Gilgamesh commander, ends up at the center of a Cargo Cult as part of his attempts to make sure that the ship survives long enough to make it to Kern's World. It seems most of this was unintentional, but by the end he's bought into his own mythology more than a little, and he wants to become the ship's living computer to watch over them forever.
  • Alien Kudzu: The terraforming target Kern points the Gilgamesh to is completely covered by a layer of grey fungus from pole to pole. The crew are unsure if it was already there or a result of the aborted terraforming product, but they have no way to clear it regardless.
  • 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. They end up developing a bio-weapon that allows them to essentially overwrite the ants programming and add them to existing colonies, effectively domesticating them as well.
  • Ape Shall Not Kill Ape: The uplift-virus infecting the spiders enforces a version of this, allowing normally solitary ambush predators to form functioning societies. There are limitations, as for much of their history the smaller, less valued males are still at significant risk of being killed by females with few consequences. This element of the virus 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 even in a more oxygen rich environment the spiders are said to push the boundary, even with new features required to simply exist at the size they are.
  • Bio Punk: The spider's entire tech-base, largely based around specially bred ant colonies and organic chemical engineering.
  • Black Widow: Female spiders often instinctively cannibalize their mates, though the practice slowly transitions from acceptable to outlawed, with the final step thanks to the work of a Fabian.
  • Brain Uploading: Used by the Empire when decisions can't safely be left to the judgement of an AI. Also what happens to Kern who leaves an upload of herself to manage things (including waking her up) while she's in cryo-sleep. Eventually the satellite she is in begins to fail, but spider technology has advanced enough by that point they they're able to copy her into an ant-computer.
  • Colonized Solar System: What humanity at the height of its technology became, colonising the outer bodies of the solar system through artificial habitats. Unfortunately, none of these worlds were actually terraformed, so when the virus knocked out all human technology, the colonies quickly died.
  • Decoy Protagonist: 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.
  • Devoured by the Horde: Happens to several of the mutineers, at the hands of the ant colony they crash-landed next to. Also something the spiders risk any time they're fighting the ants.
  • Generation Ships: What the Gilgamesh turns into, after centuries of use, forcing some of the colonists and their descendants to remain awake for its continual maintenance and upkeep.
  • 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 a near Instant Expert in whatever field is required (it does generally take a day or two for the memories to become properly usable).
  • 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 capture a live human and study her in detail. Due to their very limited hearing, they never consider the possibility of speech as a form of communication (plus, why would you use the same orifice to eat AND communicated?). After she shows the ability to learn and imitate their signaling form of communication, they conclude she is has a limited degree of intelligence, similar to the lesser spiders on their planet.
  • 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.
    • The humans are initially insistent that the spiders are nothing but dumb animals, even though they have managed to build an orbital ring. Then, the theory becomes that they're engineered bioweapons made by Kern. It probably didn't help that the chief scientist left was an arachnophobe.
  • 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.
  • Paradise Planet: Kern's World, a planet with large, lush green forests. Even the oceans are noted to appear green, due to abundant phytoplankton in the surface waters.
  • Plot Parallel: Each part features a spider story on Kern's World and a human story on the Gilgamesh, and they mirror each other in a few ways.
    • Part 1, the pre-history era: Kern's plans are forever changed when an extremist faction starts a civil war that kills off the entire human race. Meanwhile, the first spiders infected by the nanovirus learn how to hunt together instead of just alone.
    • Part 2, the exploration era: Holsten wakes up on the Gilgamesh, cold and confused, to find the ship heading towards an ancient satellite that is both calling for help and warning them away. Meanwhile, the spiders are exploring past their borders, and discover both potential threats and potential opportunities.
    • Part 3, the medieval era: The people of the Gilgamesh start a mutiny in an attempt to escape from becoming a Lost Colony. Meanwhile, the spiders are fighting a war against the endless armies of the ants for the very survival of their species.
    • Part 4, the plague era: The Gilgamesh has reached the next terraforming target, but it's nothing but an inhospitable gray ball completely overtaken by a single organism that spreads like a disease. Meanwhile, the spiders are dealing with their first plague, and might fall back into barbarism if they can't find a cure.
    • Part 5, the renaissance era: Holsten wakes up to find that Guyen has created a cult on the ship while he was sleep, generations of slaves calling him god. Meanwhile, the spiders have been worshiping the Messenger for generations, trying to follow her grand design, and a religious crusade starts when many spiders have finally had enough and rebel.
    • Part 6, the modern era: Lain has managed to stabilize the Gilgamesh for the most part, purging the last remnants of the cult, and the shipborn have both reasonable technology and a fine standard of living, though work is still hard. Meanwhile, the spiders have begun the first steps of their space program, and they make meaningful contact with the Messenger and finally manage to explain the full situation to her.
    • Part 7, the space era: The Gilgamesh finally returns to the system, upgraded for war, only to find that rather than one ancient satellite, they're facing an entire planet ready for them. The spiders fight back with technology and soldiers adapted and trained for space combat.
  • Prisoner's Dilemma: Discussed by the the crew of the Gilgamesh in regards to first contact with alien species (the Portiids, in this case). While the crew of the Gilgamesh sees cooperation as preferable, the failure case if they're betrayed is the extinction of the human race. Given the stakes, they see no option but to fight rather than approach peacefully. Fortunately for them, the Portiids are able to Take a Third Option, allowing for effective cooperation between the species.
  • 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 use it as a primary means of communication doesn't even occur to them.
  • Stealth Pun: Near the end of the book, the spiders have created a World Wide Web.
  • Terraform: What was performed on Kern's World, and numerous other extrasolar worlds within range of Sol. It's never stated to what extent this was practiced within Sol, however.
  • The Unpronounceable: The Portiids Starfish Language uses a system of knots on thread to "write" and a system of vibrations and visual signals to "talk", neither of which can be rendered properly in our written language. 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 used when another main female character appears.
  • 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. The effects range from a number of very large and abnormally smart but non-sapient creatures up to the jumping spiders and mantis shrimp who form world spanning empires (above and below the water, respectively). The virus was engineered to not effect other mammals so as not to interfere with the monkeys, but the virus being so effective on invertebrates in their absence was totally unexpected, although based on Kern's comments it seems the virus was expected to work far faster on the monkeys than it did on the 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: Half the book is from the perspective of uplifted spiders, and the other half is from the perspective of ordinary humans. The spiders are the protagonists.

Alternative Title(s): Children Of Time