One can say anything one likes about the quality of content on Tumblr, but one cannot deny that, if one follows the right blogs and blocks enough of the wrong ones, it’s possible to find gems amidst the dross on a regular basis. I stumbled across one particular gem early this year: a post which talked about how, in science fiction, humans always seem to be portrayed as weaker and less threatening than aliens, when in fact it’s quite possible that we are the dangerous ones, not the other way around. It’s a hilarious post, of course, especially for anyone who is interested in sci-fi, but it does lead to some interesting questions about what it means to be human in space – or what it means to be “alien”, for that matter.
The question of “What is alien?” is an especially interesting (albeit occasionally thorny) question that sci-fi writers tackle on a regular basis, particularly those who are interested in telling First Contact stories. Earlier this year I read Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit, which in many ways is a typical First Contact story: humans on an exploratory mission unexpectedly come into contact with an alien race, and that contact leads to a great many changes, both for humanity and the aliens.
Now, while Dark Orbit is quite an enjoyable novel, and poses some interesting questions and tackles some intriguing themes, it is, as I said, a “typical” First Contact novel, wherein the alien species is one completely unknown to humanity, and (likely) bears no relation to our species at all. In Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky proposes an entirely different scenario – and does so in a highly entertaining manner.
Children of Time tells the story of humanity’s journey to the stars: first in pursuit of discovery, and then in pursuit of survival. After generations of nuclear and environmental catastrophe that has made Earth all but uninhabitable, the last few survivors of the human race board an ark ship and head out to the stars, following the clues and remnants left behind by their more advanced predecessors in order to find a new home: a terraformed world ready for human habitation. But once they find the treasure they seek, they find out that something is not quite right, and that the new home they have long hoped and sought for is, in fact, occupied – and those occupants will not give up their hold so easily.
The above summary makes this novel look like a First Contact story in the same vein as Dark Orbit. However, it is not – something that quickly becomes obvious to the reader once they have gotten a few chapters into the book. First of all, Tchaikovsky considers what one might mean when one uses the concept of “alien” in sci-fi. For most readers (and perhaps a lot of writers), it means a completely different species, one that has no relation at all to humans. While Tchaikovsky does indeed use that more traditional meaning in this novel, he considers what it might mean if the aliens are, in fact, ourselves:
‘There’s this myth that advanced cultures will be so expansively cosmopolitan that they’ll be able to effortlessly talk down to the little people, right? But the Empire never intended its tech to be forward-compatible with primitives – meaning us. Why would it? Like everyone else, they only ver intended to talk to each other.’
One of the most popular quotes from the novel The Go-Between, written by L.P. Hartley, goes: “The past is another country; they do things differently there.” And this is quite true: we oftentimes look back into history and wonder: what were they thinking? Why did they do what they did? And sometimes, what we find there is so strange or incomprehensible to those of us in the present day that the past does not seem like another country so much as another world entirely. Though they are the same species as us, our ancestors can sometimes seem very much like aliens.
This is an idea that Tchaikovsky takes to an interesting extreme in this novel by showing what happens to humanity if something causes it to regress from a socio-cultural high point into a kind of “dark age”. This idea is nothing new: it has happened in history, and many other writers have taken a similar angle in their writing. But what makes Tchaikovsky’s take on it interesting is that he tries to look at the similarities, not the differences, between humans at their highest and humans at their lowest. The most scientifically-advanced human in the story is shown to be no different from the least advanced. To be sure, there are vast gaps between the two in terms of, say, scientific knowledge, but at base, they are the same: both driven to survive, and to attain that survival by any means necessary.
Tchaikovsky also draws upon similarities when discussing the novel’s alien race. I cannot say too much about them, as that would ruin a lot of what makes this novel so very interested to read, but here is a quote that shows just how similar the aliens are to humans:
Another handful of her kind are already there, seeking the reassurance of the numinous, the certainty that there is something more to the world than their senses can readily grasp; that there is a greater Understanding. That, even when all is lost, all need not be lost.
Oftentimes in sci-fi stories, especially First Contact stories, lots of writers try to highlight what makes the aliens different from humans – sometimes in ways that make the aliens better than us, other times in ways that make them worse. But in choosing to highlight the similarities instead of the differences, Tchaikovsky gradually lays down the groundwork for the novel’s primary theme: that empathy – the ability to see someone else not as “Other” but as “Same” – is what makes us all human, and that it is the trait that should define humanity as a species, both now and in the future.
It is that focus on empathy that, I think, really makes this novel not just an enjoyable read, but in the end, an uplifting one. Over and over again, in ways both subtle and overt, the reader is asked to try to see things differently – whether it is to understand the world through the eyes of an alien, or through the eyes of humans trapped in a situation where a single wrong decision can mean the death of the entire species. It is a timely message too; after all, a brief glimpse at current news headlines ought to convince any reader that maybe, if we were all a little more empathetic towards not just our fellow humans, but to Mother Nature too, we might not be facing so many threats to our ability to live in a peaceful and healthy world.
It also helps that Tchaikovsky’s prose is quite readable. While it is not exactly the same as the prose of some other, more lyrical writers, and while he has a tendency to lay it on a bit thick in some places, he does have a fairly good handle of both the language and the direction of the plot, managing to keep three distinct plots going while still ensuring that the novel reads as one, cohesive whole. While some readers might be drawn to one particular plot more than the others (I certainly was), by the novel’s latter third it becomes clear that all those disparate stories actually do form one whole, and Tchaikovsky could not have achieved the ending any other way.
Overall, Children of Time is an unexpected gem of a novel: not because it does anything extremely grand or groundbreaking, but because it has an emotional heart that readers don’t often see in sci-fi, certainly rarely in First Contact novels. Even better, that emotional heart is treated in a way that is not tawdry or sappy; rather, Tchaikovsky takes the time to lay down the groundwork in such a way that, by the time the reader gets to the end, it rings uplifting and true rather than flat and false.