Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time, Tor, 2015.
In the future, humanity is divided because of projects that aim to terraform uninhabitable planets, and then to introduce animal species whose evolution will be guided by a nanovirus. Dr Avrana Kern is about to finalise one of these projects with a population of apes. But right when she's about to press the button for the final launch, one of her team, who secretely adheres to the faction opposing the projects, destroys the orbital station in which they all are. It's only the first terrorist action of a war that will decimate humanity...
Avrana Kern manages nonetheless to launch to the planet the capsule which holds the nanovirus and to find refuge in the observation post orbiting the planet. But the exploding orbital station destroys the ship with the apes. The nanovirus nonetheless lands on the planet and works its way through the fauna, particularly among a species of arachnids.
Centuries later, a few surviving humans arrive near the planet which seems to be the only inhabitable planet in the galaxy.
Let's be clear: if you suffer of arachnophobia, do not read this book! Tchaikovsky merrily describes in detail the arachnids eyes, legs, and habits, including the eating habits.
Nevertheless, the reader is quite quickly gripped by this tale that alternates between the sad spectacle of the human survivors and the slow growth and development of the arachnid civilisation. And it's quite fascinating!
Tchaikovsky renews the old tropes of the alien culture that we witness evolving, thanks to an articial element introduced by humanity, humanity who becomes a creating god and at the same time falls into a terrible decadence while the arachnids gain consciousness, science, morality.
The choice of an arachnid race is quite a bold one and it offers a society, a technology and a communication mode completely different to what any SF reader is used to.
The novel spans many centuries but Tchaikovsky remains perfectly cohesive and keeps a steady pace, while nonetheless the reader gets invested in the evolution and the development of the characters, including the eight-legged characters!
As often in science-fiction, the idea is to go beyond anthropocentrism, but Tchaikovsky does it in a radical and highly successful fashion. Once I was past the many "Eeek" and "Eurgh" because of the arachnids, it's a somptuous frescoe of the decadence of one civilisation and the rise of another, their identity quests and their fight for survival. All in all, a gripping novel with a remarkable ending.
Update - August 2016: Children of Time has won the 30th Arthur C. Clarke Award and it's entirely deserved!
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I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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