There is no questioning the ambition and achievement of Doctor Avrana Kern, but neither is there any doubt of her arrogance; while it is only in her private thoughts that she thinks of what the colonising expedition will become over time in terms of gods as she dreams that the as-yet unnamed world below her will one day be dubbed “Kern’s World,” dismissing those back home who oppose her pioneering mission as “bickering primates, the lot of them,” but it is these beliefs which inform her actions.
The proposal is grand: the world, terraformed towards human specifications, will be home to a preliminary population of primates along with an uplift nanovirus which will selectively push them towards intelligence, problem solving, tool using, co-operation, preserved through every generation until they are a trained and evolved population ready to welcome the coming colonists, refugees from the dying Earth.
But even the best laid plans of monkeys and humans go far astray, derailed by a faction who violently disagree with Kern’s uncompromising vision, but so far out in deep space that knowledge is lost to time, unknown to the thousands of souls in deep sleep, hibernating on the ark ship Gilgamesh on course for the system expecting to find a blossoming new home tailored to their needs.
In Children of Time Adrian Tchaikovsky is truly is the charting of the last days of a civilisation, be it may that humanity has managed to eke those days out across two and a half thousand years of frozen final breaths, while at their destination the corrupted orbiting uploaded simulation of Avrana is directed towards a single goal, raising the stepchildren on the planet below whom she believes are her own, not realising it was the transplanted species Portia labiata who received the nanovirus infection.
On Kern’s World, Portia’s family advance through rudimentary mathematics to the basics of science, intercepting the repeating broadcast of the orbiting facility, a message from the heavens meant for them. There is cognitive bias on both sides which leads both astray in their concept of the other, and there are reminders of In Thy Image, the storyline which eventually became Star Trek The Motion Picture, Gene Roddenberry’s repeated suggestion that God is a machine, God is mad, or possibly, as with what Avrana Kern has become, God is quite definitely both.
Conversely on the Gilgamesh the descendants of the last generation try to interpret and recreate the technology of the previous civilisation, lost arts of fusion drives and advanced computing, each striving towards achievements which carry their own curse, their own collapsing, bickering microsociety an echo of previous tales of overstretched generation ships such as Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop or Joe Haldeman‘s Old Twentieth.
Portia herself is represented as a consistent individual in each generation of her family and is a more complete and believable character than the Gilgamesh’s wholly human and largely reactionary classicist Holsten Mason who tends towards one dimensionality, interpreting events through the texts he translates for modern ears and never fundamentally changed as a person by the wrenching changes he experiences each time he is woken. Similarly, despite the complexity of the novel and its themes, Commander Vrie Guyen of the Gilgamesh is as much an unexamined ranting monomaniac as Avrana Kern.
Within each environment there is further strife and division, the uneasy truce between the Great Nest of the Portiids are their more distant predatory cousin species and open war with an aggressively colonial insectoid species, devoid of intellect or insight but possessed of technical and strategic capability borne of the trial-and-error elimination approach made possible by the vast numbers of their overwhelming population, while the Gilgamesh becomes factionalised under Guyen’s dictatorship.
Despite its length, Children of Time is fast moving and engaging, principally though the developing culture of Great Nest, and the extrapolation of that deeply hereditary and fiercely competitive matriarchal alien society which is totally gestural and with no spoken language is utterly fascinating, while in contrast Holsten, engineer Isa Lain and Guyen are never as interesting as Portia, Bianca, Fabian and their kin.
The narratives twisted together as each species takes great leaps forward in time, the descendants of the Portia lineage and their genetically inherited repository of knowledge and more importantly Understanding, and the last survivors of the ruined, toxic Earth, striding forward across the centuries in hypersleep aboard the Gilgamesh while the universe evolves around them, plunging into an unknown future over which they have no control.
In contrast to the forensic examination of failure paths on an extended space voyage which informed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, the technology which underpins Children of Time is strictly “closed box” and accepted as such without question: interstellar travel with limitless fuel, repeated hibernation with minimal consequence, and driving the whole the planetary transforming project and the nanovirus which selectively drives intelligence through each generation, but only (supposedly) in the target species which was intended to form the basis of the exaltation experiment.
At six hundred pages, the many stages in the parallel evolution and devolution are surprising yet entirely logical, and the one apparently superfluous diversion seeming only included to place an action scene in the opening chapters is in fact neither forgotten nor irrelevant, the whole novel as intricately conceived and constructed as a tightly woven web designed to trap the reader; indeed, when the conclusion comes it is surprising yet entirely obvious and consistent, even inevitable with hindsight, save that the brain of the presumably human reader is not programmed to think that way.
Children of Time is available now from Pan Macmillan