I find it puzzling. Why do I struggle to connect with and enjoy certain amazing books?
By any objective standard, I should have loved Children of Time. It has a fascinating premise, a mind-alerting perspective, novel technologies, and a pair of intertwining plot threads that are by their very nature compelling.
And yet...reading it felt like a duty. I had to force myself to complete the book.
Am I just old? Brain ossified? Maybe I've just 'outgrown' SF, where by 'outgrown' I mean 'aged out of'? (For perspective, I'm thinking of "aging out of" in the same sense that gymnasts (at least used to) age out of being competitive before they reached age 20, not in the sense of "leaving childish things behind.")
I don't know. But I do think that with Children of Time there are several things going on, at least for me.
To talk about them, I need to talk about the specifics of the novel. And apologies, there are going to be some spoilers.
The book takes place in the far future and has two main plot threads. In the first, (PT1) a grand star-spanning human civilization crashes, leaving behind a science project running on a distant isolated planet. We then follow the artificially-accelerated evolution of a species of uplifted spiders across thousands of generations as they evolve from simple spiders to intelligent social beings with a planet-spanning civilization. Plot thread two (PT2) begins centuries after PT1 begins, when an Ark ship from the reconstituted human civilization arrives searching for a new home for the last remnants of humanity. Earth (and every other human habitat) is dead.
Both stories take place over thousands of years: the spider story told as a series of vignettes illustrating key moments in their evolution and in the development of their society; the human story told as the human "sleepers" on the ship wake to deal with one crisis or another as their mostly-automated ship travels the cosmos looking for a home for its sleeping cargo of otherwise doomed people.
Here is the first problem with the story, at least for me -- it takes place over far too long a time span. I couldn't read Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I simply got too frustrated with the structure of the book, which featured the same characters reincarnated again and again over the course of a long alternate history. The story was interrupted over and over again, you had to figure out which character was which every time (names, of course, varied for each incarnation), and there wasn't a clear story arc for the overall book. I rapidly stopped caring.
The spider story arc (PT1) inherently has these same problems. Strike One.
However, Tchaikovsky does something clever. The protagonists of each episode of PT1 have a consistent set of names, even though the actual players change with almost every episode: "Portia" is always our enterprising heroine, "Bianca" our spider super-scientist, "Viola" a political leader, "Fabian" a genius male spider struggling to advance the interests of males within spiderdom. The consistent set of names gives the episodes a spurious feel of continuity, which was enough to keep me engaged -- at least after the spiders developed a degree of sentience. Strike two: this took almost 100 pages.
The second plot thread (PT2) should be a no-brainer -- lots of drama, a clear plotline, a consistent set of core characters throughout. The problem? Holsten, the viewpoint character in PT2 (I hesitate to call him the 'protaganist') is one of the most passive characters I've encountered in fiction.
Holsten is not one of the leaders of the expedition, involved in making decisions about the expedition, taking dramatic action, inspiring others, or in figuring things out. Instead he is a specialist woken only when he is needed to decipher messages in the languages of the lost civilization. So he is not necessarily involved in the key events and crises that affect the human voyage. Even that might be okay, because after all, this book isn't really about the drama of those events. It's about the <SPOILER, BUT I THINK YOU CAN SEE THIS COMING> events that lead the human ship into conflict with the spiders. So, okay, the events setting up the conflict mostly do involve Holsten, albeit only in a supporting role.
The real barrier? Holseten is personally incredibly passive. When conflict breaks out on the Ark ship, he doesn't take sides: he doesn't even have a clear sense of which side he thinks is correct. When he discovers something earth-shattering, he sleeps on the decision about whether to tell the captain, even though the information is critical and the ship is operating under a time limit. He doesn't speak up when he begins to suspect the true nature of the messages he is receiving from the planet of PT1, even though that revelation is also critical. Over and over again he decides nothing, he says nothing, doesn't act, doesn't have an opinion, doesn't appear to care deeply about anyone -- not even the person who supposedly falls in love with him (I say supposedly because that deep love doesn't seem believable within the context of the book).
Holsten is a very frustrating character to follow through PT2.
Strike 3 against the book.
I have some theories about why Tchaikovsky wrote Holsten this way. One is that it was in the interests of verisimilitude. Who is most likely to survive a centuries-long voyage? Someone who is key to every decision and has to be awakened repeatedly to act (using up their lifespan), or someone less central? Okay, plausible but not definitive. Any author worth their salt could work around that one somehow.
A second reason Tchaikovsky might have made Holsten so passive is that Tchaikovsky felt that a more detached viewpoint gave a more appropriate tone to story that takes place over eons -- Holsten's detachment lends the story a more eternal quality. Sure, but is that worth the potential loss of reader interest?
I think my third theory is the strongest one: Tchaikovsky wanted to balance our interest in both plot threads even though our sympathies are naturally going to skew towards humanity in any contest of "human vs spider". Holsten's detachment was Tchaikovsky's way of lessening our engagement with the humans.
Unfortunately, that third strike against the book meant that even after I started feeling engaged with the fate of the spiders, I kept procrastinating about reading the book. I didn't like the viewpoint character in PT2. In fact, I didn't really like any of the humans.
I mean, I love SF for the way it explores ideas, but fundamentally, stories are about people.
Okay, okay. Counter examples: Foundation and anything else Asimov ever wrote. In fact, almost any SF that predates the "New Wave" of the 1960s, and a good chunk of that too. I mean, how long was it until anyone other than Ursula K. LeGuin focused on humans as humans?
Which brings me back to the "aging out" comment. Maybe my brain has degenerated to the point where I need a human story line in order to really engage with SF. Or, hopefully, it's just a phase I'm going through. :-) Because I don't think SF is ever going to be only human-centred, and I probably wouldn't want it to be.