CHILDREN OF TIME: only an ethical uplift can save us

I found Adrian Tchaikovsky’s CHILDREN OF TIME slow going to begin with. I disliked the first chapter (but this is in fact understandable as the point of view character, Dr Avrana Kern, is deliberately written so as to be quite antipathetic) and I put the book down for a while before trying again. Finally, I was carried along by the story and the book was a very rewarding read, so I advise anyone with doubts at the beginning to persist.

(Update 12/06/22: I quite liked the book, but reading Bormgans’ review made me try to re-evaluate the whole reading experience. As stated above I had a similar problem to Bormgans with the beginning – I started the book several times, only to leave off reading it. However, I was intrigued enough by the basic idea and the favourable reviews to want to give it a final chance, so I began reading again, this time with the audiobook. I find that the recourse to audio-reading can help me plough through a blockage, if the narration is good, which it was in this case. After this hesitant and uncertain beginning I really enjoyed the story, though I must admit that despite the scientific trappings I would never have thought to categorise this book as “Hard” SF).

The plot takes a while to pick up, but I found the speculative narrative of the social and technological evolution of the spiders both interesting and enjoyable. There was a very interesting attempt to imagine plausibly how the very different subjectivity of the intelligent Spiders could evolve and progress, in ways similar but not identical to our own evolution, towards greater civilization, despite their “uplift” being due to an accident.

The parallel plot of the decadence and devolution of the humans provided a predictable but emotionally (if not intellectually) satisfying counterpoint.

The imagination of a biology-based technology was well done, but it had the defect of being based on a naive form of biological determinism. Humans are by hypothesis glorified monkeys genetically lacking in empathy, and so are biologically doomed as a species to self-extermination, unless some sort of ethical, as opposed to cognitive, uplift can occur.

This speculative premise is reminiscent of that underlying Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS TRILOGY, and Tchaikovsky’s intelligent Spiders with their genetic technology recall Butler’s genetic-engineering Oankali, except that their encounter with the Other is not driven by the self-serving drive for trade of the Oankali but by their capacity for empathy.

(Update 12/06/22: The account of the evolution of the spiders struck me as “brilliant”, in the sense of clever (well-imagined and thought out from inside known paradigms) rather than intelligent (paradigm-changing). As Bormgans remarks we come out of the story having re-imagined known elements rather than knowing more, or deeper, about biology or the human condition. The spiders’ evolution follows the line of what we can intuitively recognise as progress, at the price of losing their initial alien-ness.

Ultimately the uplifted spiders become the humanitarian good guys manipulating the flatly depicted “bad” (because biologically flawed) humans, who in their turn are in need of an ethical “uplift”, for their own good. So we are manipulated to identify with the politically correct “spiders”.

I think Tchaikovsky gives the game away concerning the ease with which he moves between the genres of fantasy and science fiction in a more recent novel, ELDER RACE, where he gives us a sort of “Rosetta Stone” for translating between fantasy and SF tropes. An incredibly advanced human stranded alone on an anthropological outpost to study the human cultural evolution on a “primitive” planet is persuaded to accompany a princess on a quest to find and neutralise a threat that turns out to baffle his super-advanced super-science.

The princess thinks in mythico-fantastic terms and there is a certain difficulty to their attempts at communication, given their incommensurable world-views. In the middle chapter of the story the scientifically advanced anthropologist explains the true history of her world (the interstellar voyage, colonisation, regression, etc.) and she has no trouble understanding it, but translates it automatically into her own concepts. This chapter’s format consists of two columns side by side with one and the same story expressed in scientific terms in the left-hand column and in fantasy terms on the right. I think that this device is revelatory not only Tchaikovsky’s work but for much of so-called “hard” sf as being basically constructed of a fantasy substrate formulated in souped-up scientific jargon).

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RAVEN STRATAGEM: sequelitis and its discontents

I really enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT, the first novel in the Machineries of Empire Trilogy and felt inspired to defend it from the Shadow Clarke’s critiques of its uncritical use of genre clichés, personality stereotypes and formulaic plot structure. I argued that these defects were more than compensated for by the novel’s speculative elements and the imaginative world-building. I eagerly awaited the sequel RAVEN STRATEGY, but I found it a disappointing, albeit pleasant, read.

This second novel contains a competent and enjoyable story set inside Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate universe. Unfortunately, there is not as much world-building and speculative beauty as in the first volume.

Instead of cosmology we get a sketchy sociology of the factions, each of which gives its members a faction-specific “super-power” (except for the Shuos) based on “exotic” technology (and so dependent on the reigning calendar). The interactions and power plays between the factions are explored in a little more detail, as are the quirks and foibles of the ruling hexarchs.

In conclusion, the Hexarchate universe is fleshed out with interesting and engaging details, and the number of important characters is increased, allowing a more complex intrigue. However, the supplement of sociological complexity does not compensate for the psychological simplicity of reducing characters to rather stereotypical faction and individual personality traits.