★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Sympathetic spiders? Inconceivable!
–I do not think that word means what you think it means–
Nope, in this case, it pretty much does. It’s not that I have a spider-phobia–I like to think we have a truce regarding squishing and biting–it’s that something about their structure and movement speaks to some primeval instinct to run away. Children of Time popped up in friend reviews, but I’ll be honest–it wasn’t until I realized there were giant spiders and colony ships that I really became intrigued. I am usually interested in the moving island of space colonization, and the inclusion of what seemed to be genuine aliens piqued my curiosity. Could it be done? Could an author really give an alien feel and yet remain sympathetic to creatures that inspire such fear?
Yes and yes.
Aside from that general set-up, I went into Children blind. Tchaikovsky structures the premise and then alternates the narrative between the two species. Once settled into the story-telling rhythm, he adds another wrinkle. I appreciate the way he told the story, easing the reader in and then building on the concepts. The human narrative tends to be more dialogue oriented, the spider-narrative more internal. It makes for an interesting pace change that might have dragged had the entire book been one style or the other.
“She feels fear, a building anxiety that makes her stamp her feet and twitch her palps. Her people are more suited to offence than defence, but they have been unable to retain the initiative in this conflict. She will have to improvise. There is no plan for what comes next. She may die, and her eyes look into that abyss and feed her with a terror of extinction, of un-being, that is perhaps the legacy of all life.”
Characterization proved rather intriguing, particularly at first. I thought the feel of primitive spider-thinking rather believable, and appreciated the structuring of a very different world-view. I ended up believing the premise enough to enjoy the story and not feel hampered by arguing the science in my head. Also interestingly–particularly in a genre known for its sexism–the tendency of some female spiders to eat the males after mating is turned toward matriarchic ends. I was also intrigued by the spiders’ interaction with other beings on the world, as well as how they are characterized.
“She knows that individual ants themselves cannot be treated with, communicated with or even threatened. Her comprehension is coarse, of a necessity, but approximates to the truth. Each ant does not think. It has a complex set of responses based on a wide range of stimuli, many of which are themselves chemical messages produced by other ants in response to still more eventualities.”
Writing is solid. It is complex enough to convey cognitive concepts of world-view as well as philosophical underpinnings of what intelligence and interconnectivity is. I didn’t overtly realize it as I read, but I think there were parallel discussions of what humanity means and aims for, a particularly worthwhile topic for our time.
“The more he learned of them, the more he saw them not as spacefaring godlike exemplars, as his culture had originally cast them, but as monsters: clumsy, bickering, short-sighted monsters… In trying to be the ancients, they had sealed their own fate–neither to reach those heights, nor any others, doomed instead to a history of mediocrity and envy.”
I do think Tchaikovsky loses his way somewhat near the last third of the book. Still, it ended up being a book full of unexpected twists and turns. Most worked. A few did not, and I remain ambivalent about the ending. However, there were also moments when I thought, “this reminds me of Ursula LeGuin and one of her world-building, sci-fi masterpieces.” A good story, intriguing world-building and a layered exploration of humanity and civilization. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it to someone who is in the mood for classic-feeling science fiction with modern sensibilities.