03 June 2015

By Sam Eades


Adrian Tchaikovsky is the HUGELY prolific author behind the long-running, epic fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt. This year we are publishing two standalone novels from Adrian which show the sheer breadth of his imagination (plus how does he find the time!). Earlier this year saw the release of the Regency-set Guns of the Dawn described by SFX as 'Mr Darcy with fireballs.' In Children of Time, which is out now, he turns his hand to science fiction.  This tense race for survival among the stars has already earned Adrian praise from Peter F Hamilton. And he knows a thing or two about science fiction!

We caught up with Adrian to ask him a few questions about villains, Battlestar Galactica and whether mankind will ever live among the stars...

1)      What inspired you to write about the birth of a new civilization?

In Shadows of the Apt I go in for a bit of what I call ‘echo history’ – it’s not our world, not even an alternative history (or if it is, the divergence point is absurdly far back in the mists of time), but the insect-kinden do run into some familiar challenges and scenarios, which they have to solve using the very different tools available to them. Their history bumps alongside our own, mirroring events and even individuals on occasion before buzzing away on its own trajectory.

It’s a fun exercise for a writer – a sort of distant iteration of the “who would have won the Battle of Gettysburg if…” school of thought that gave us alternate history as a sub-genre, and the insect kinden gave me a taste for it, and I wanted to do something in the same vein but on a wholly different scale – not just near-humans in a near-familiar fantasy setting, but an alien species on another world. For this I need to get my SpecEvo on…

Speculative evolution is a little-known discipline, but a fascinating one, both for looking at future or alternate earth ecosystems, and potential alien life. Ever since I came across Dougal Dixon’s After Man back in school (from which I mostly carried away the terrifying bat-monsters) the idea has had its hooks in me. I’m very much a believer in the idea that evolution could have gone very differently (Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life has a lot to say on this subject) rather than the anthrocentric view that evolution was basically always going to result in something very like people. There was a Horizon documentary about ‘how dinosaurs might have evolved’ that gave us basically a person in a rubber suit, considerably more human even than the Silurians in Doctor Who. In contrast the artist Memo Kosemen produces a far more saurian/avian image for All Yesterdays that makes far more sense to me. I don’t think there’s any compelling reason why alien life will look like us (see Stewart and Cohen’s Evolving the Alien), or why earth life would, if you could re-run the movie.

Children of Time isn’t cut off from earth – the ecosystem starts off as earth-like but tampered-with, on a planet terraformed for human occupation that then gets left to run wild for a long, long time. The species that arises (in something of an accelerated way for Reasons) last shared an ancestor with humans half a billion years ago or so, but we watch it develop from stone age on up, and it hits a lot of the same speed bumps, and deals with them using its own very different tools. Plague, war, internal strife, even issues like suffrage and religion arise, each hopefully recognisable enough for the reader to empathise, and at the same time alien enough to be convincing. In a sense it’s a speculative evolution of their society, a thought experiment with a plot. Except that, of course, that’s only half the book, because we humans are still around.

2)      Are your sympathies with humanity or the new civilization they inadvertently helped create?

Anyone who’s read Shadows of the Apt or Guns of the Dawn will know I haven’t yet written a one-sided story, as far as right or wrong go. We watch the natives develop, expand, invent and come to an understanding of their world just in time to realise that humanity – to them kind of Von Daniken-style god-aliens from the dawn of time – is coming to obliterate them. To the humans, they have one ship, and its cargo of frozen bodies is all that’s left of our species, and we need a planet to colonise or that’s the end of us, all our long years of history and culture. Both sides are cursed by the past that shaped them, set on a collision course. Both sides are, hopefully, sympathetic. Only one can triumph.

The real villain in the book (and I’m not going to get into the weird third player in this little game, who makes things really interesting) is the past (the Time, I might say, if I was being particularly pretentious, that they’re all Children of). Both sides are, in very unintended ways, the product of the same distant historical events. Both sides are constrained by baggage from a starfaring human civilisation that is functionally extinct, but still exerts a terrible influence on its disparate heirs.

3)      Do you think one day mankind will live amongst the stars?

I think that, if we don’t, we won’t live anywhere. The prognosis for Planet Earth’s long term ability to support us doesn’t look all that rosy unless we change our ways fairly significantly. There has in recent years been a renewed interest in extraplanetary travel, voyaging out into the solar system for mining rights or for habitation (although anyone wanting to sign up to live on Mars should really be reading the small print about now.)

I’m more concerned about how that “living among the stars” will come about, and under what conditions. Let’s be honest, now: we’d all like to live in the Culture, Iain M. Banks’ post-scarcity paradise for all. What would be less appealing, as a future for humanity, would be a scenario like Ben Elton’s Stark, where having ruined the planet for everyone, the one percent naff off into space to escape a toxic apocalypse. Unfortunately right now we seem to be closer to Elton than to Banks.

There’s also just how late we leave it. If we stabilise Earth and then ease ourselves into space in a spirit of optimism and plenty – picture gleaming art-deco rocketships from the 50’s full of cheerily smiling families blasting off for the new all-mod-cons suburbs on Mars, say – that sounds pretty good (although maybe something a bit more diverse than the image that brings up). The scenario in Children of Time, though, is one where their ship, the Gilgamesh, is a final throw of the dice: Earth is dying and we weren’t ready, but we have the coordinates of a planet we think our ancestors might have been terraforming, and we have no better plan. The human story in Children is a grimly determined fight against social and structural entropy. Things, as they say, fall apart.

So let’s not do that, in the real world. Let’s sort ourselves out and jump into space, rather than being pushed, eh?

4)      What food or drink would you miss most if waking on a colony ship, several light centuries away from earth?

I think the most honest answer is “food”, because, let’s face it, even a fairly luxurious colony ship is unlikely to have an extensive farming industry (although David Ramirez does have ‘vertical farms’ in his excellent The Forever Watch.) As a writer, I feel you’d have to go to some considerable lengths to have anything resembling recognisable food on a colony ship, rather than Major Tom’s protein pills, some sort of nourishing kibble that gives you everything you need while, basically, denying you everything you want. I think what you’d miss more is probably privacy, personal space. Unless you had some kind of Star Trek-style Holodeck or lucid dreaming where you could basically get away from the ship into a world of your own, you’d start going stir crazy pretty quickly. Imagine if you lived with your office co-workers 24 hours a day…

5) Do you think fans of Battlestar Galactica and the Alien film sequence would find some much-loved themes brought to new life in your book?

There are definitely some common ideas. As for Alien, well… I guess that’s very much the human perspective, because they’re going head to head with terrifying monsters. The xenomorphs in the films aren’t shown as having any kind of society or rationale, save to make more xenomorphs. In Aliens in particular, we get to see a species that obviously has access to a certain amount of intelligence (at the queen level anyway) and yet has no purpose other than to produce more identical and ravenous offspring, for which process they unfortunately require our involvement. If the xenomorphs reproduced by laying their eggs in, say, melons, they’d be adorable pets for all the family. The aliens (if that term really fits) in Children of Time have their own culture and society and history, but if they’re going to survive they need to do something fairly drastic about this shipload of humans coming their way.

As for Battlestar Galactica, the humans have a very similar problem: need a new home, running out of everything. They might not have Cylons to put a rocket under them, but they’re just as desperate, and that desperation leads to a lot of friction and fractures within the human crew, factions and fighting and exactly the sort of craziness you might imagine if you, and only you, had the fate of the entire human race on your shoulders. Add to that encounters with hostile aliens and a terrifying artificial intelligence that can effortlessly hack your ship’s systems and is contemplating turning off the life support, and it’s no wonder the cracks begin to show in most of the key crew.

Also, the POV character, Holsten Mason, is definitely played by Edward James Olmos. In my head, anyway. 

Children of Time , winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award 2016, is out now. Get your copy here.