Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
I don’t know if it’s universal but my getting hooked on science fiction happened early and was mostly the good luck of running into writers like Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury at the start. These were writers who created interesting worlds and worked around interesting concepts. Like a real drug, one tends to crave the same drug that started it all and this amazing book by Adrian Tchaikovsky definitely hit the right spots.
The book starts with an expedition to an earth-like planet led by a narcissistic scientist named Avrana Kern. The ship she’s on is about to run an experiment on what she guesses will soon be named Kern’s World in which apes are imported onto the planet and infected with a nano-virus designed to speed the development of intelligence. Instead, a crew member decides that the experiment is dangerous and has to be destroyed. He sabotages the ship. The apes and many in the crew die, but the virus still manages to drift down to the planet.
While Kern sends a distress signal and goes back into suspended animation to await rescue the virus begins doing its work on various creatures on the planet. The particular beneficiaries are a breed of large spiders.
On the planet we get to watch as the already-intelligent spiders begin to evolve more developed language, societies, science, wars against other creatures, and even a form of religion.
Things are complicated when Kern is awakened by an ark ship. Earth has experienced wars and a collapse of society. Survivors cobble together equipment they don’t really understand and fill thousands of suspended animation pods with migrants. Kern, and the artificial intelligence that has stored much of Kern’s mind, refuse to allow them to use the planet and send them off to another planet that was being terraformed by the old Empire.
As the narrative progresses the action moves from the ark ship to Kern to the spider society. Kern becomes more insane in a kind of half-waking state. The colonists reach the second planet and find it offers nothing, forcing them to return. The spiders notice Kern’s ship traveling across the night sky and begin developing ways to try to communicate and reach what they’re sure is their God watching over them.
Tchaikovsky does a wonderful job imagining intelligent evolution from a spider perspective, even offering a look at male spiders, frequently eaten after sex, beginning to ask for their right to life as intelligence and awareness increases. Props to Tchaikovsky for offering the first fictional spiders I’ve rooted for since Charlotte’s Web.
The ending is stunning, and if I told much about it there would be nothing but spoilers. Suffice to say that it’s an ending totally fitting for the genius narrative Tchaikovsky has created. This is the kind of book that has become all too rare in the sci-fi world but offers such a boost that it feels worthwhile to wait for the next awe-inducing book to hit the genre.