There are aliens, right here on Earth. Right now. Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, as H.G. Wells put it—though he was talking about life on Mars. Closer to home we have crows, who are happy to engage with friendly humans, and the less friendly (and altogether weirder) octopus. Strangest of all, and scariest to many of us, is the spider. They’re everywhere, and it’s pretty clear they’d be happy to have us for lunch, given the chance. And from hunting to weaving, they’re very good at what they do.
The Portia spider, for instance, captures much larger prey through mimicry, social coordination, and adaptability, qualities that explain why that particular species gets a big shout out in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel Children of Time, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in its native UK in 2015 and is finally getting a proper North American release after years of being available only as an import (not that that prevented it from making our list of the best sci-fi books of the year). “Portia” is the name taken by generations of leaders in an evolved spider society unleashed, quite accidentally, on a lifeless alien world via a misdirected payload of a human-engineered virus. What sounds like the premise for a 1950s monster movie becomes a fascinating, thoughtful, and impressively moving exploration of cultures in conflict.
Monkeys were the plan. Brilliant and ambitious (if morally deficient) scientist Avrana Kern thinks she’s figured out how to save the human race from itself, even if her idea doesn’t, strictly speaking, include humans. Monkeys placed on a sleeper ship and deposited on a promising-yet-remote alien planet will be infected with a nanovirus that will steer their evolution along human lines. The virus would allow the creatures to evolve in parallel to their new home, adapted to an environment outside of Earth, while still serving as a kind of successor to humanity.
Naturally, there are people back on Earth who don’t see the advantage in being superseded rather than saved, and a terrorist incident throws Dr. Kern’s plan into chaos. The virus escapes, but doesn’t find its intended host in Dr. Kern’s monkeys, instead infecting the insect life earlier brought to the planet to prime it for its planned population of super-monkeys. In a storyline running parallel to that of the ill-fated human expedition, we encounter the first spider referred to as Portia, a smarter-than-usual example of her species. As the virus takes hold, we follow subsequent generations of Portias who lead their fellow spiders—as much as spiders can be lead—into the development of a new society, with ever-increasing intelligence evolving along spider-ish lines.
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Tchaikovsky’s take on spider society is fascinating and certainly feels plausible, managing to intrigue despite the outlandishness of the premise—as the intelligence of the arachnid community grows, we’re able to meet them halfway in understanding the very alien world and the ways of thinking of a predatory species. The spiders aren’t the only creatures that have evolved, though, and they eventually engage in brutal conflicts with ants that rival any epic clash in fantasy literature (Tchaikovsky knows from insects and spiders, having penned the 10-book Shadows of the Apt series, about warring races of humans augmented with insectile and arachnid abilities, as well as the D&D-friendly novella Spiderlight). Like the spiders, the uplifted ants develop intelligence appropriate to their own bodies and culture, making a functioning ant colony a sort of hive mind not unlike a giant computer.
During the long evolution of the species, a human ship, the Gilgamesh, arrives with some of the last survivors of mankind in cryogenic sleep. They’re desperate for a new home, and Dr. Kern’s world seems perfect—even with the over-sized spiders and relentless ants, it’s still the most promising place they’ve found. What’s left of Dr. Kern herself—an uploaded intelligence, trapped in an orbiting satellite—ferociously guards her experiment, though, forcing the humans to regroup elsewhere, and consider making desperate alliances. Over the centuries, the spiders evolve rapidly thanks both to the virus (which gifts them with complex genetic memory) and their short lifespans, as does the culture of the remnants of humanity onboard the cryoship.
In both societies, there are triumphs and mistakes; periods of horrific violence and remarkable achievement. Each is subject to unavoidable catastrophe, but each is also more than capable of harming itself. Examining the growing pains of civilization is just the biggest of several very big ideas Tchaikovsky explores; likewise he illustrates the ways in which two societies with very different ways of living and thinking could both grow in parallel and sharply diverge. There are questions of religion, as humans create a new messiah over the centuries and the spiders come to understand their connection to the blinking satellite in the sky. There’s even a smart, slightly cheeky look at sexism, as the female-dominated spider society takes a very long time to see males as much more than post-coital snacks.
The science-fiction question here has to do with alien intelligence. How do spider think, and what would it be like to be one? It’s a worthwhile question in and of itself to build a fun book around, but Tchaikovsky’s focus is a bit more ambitious than simple fun. The real question isn’t about what it would be like to have an alien mind and life, but about how two very different cultures can find common enough ground to avoid destroying one another. What initially seems like a fascinating but somewhat pessimistic view of cultural conflict becomes, by the end, a bit more hopeful—a message that we can at least learn from each other, even if we can’t avoid every tragedy, if we just learn how to unlock the better spiders of our nature. Children of Time is utterly fascinating and utterly readable, the rare novel that’s as page-turning as it is intelligent. It’s also a perfect standalone novel—which doesn’t mean the forthcoming sequel, Children of Ruin, won’t be welcomed with open… legs.