The Doors of Eden – A Window Into What Could Have Been

the-doors-of-eden-hb-coverI am very appreciative of Adrian Tchaikovsky continually putting out solid standalone science fiction novels. His latest book, The Doors of Eden, is the next in a long chain of satisfying and meaty stories that are nicely contained in a single novel. Tchaikovsky’s latest novel has cemented him in my mind as a reliable author who always has something interesting to say and explore with his novels. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed The Doors of Eden, and I suspect that you will as well.

The Doors of Eden is about parallel Earths. In this story, there exists a multitude of timelines dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, each with its own branching path to evolution. The story explores the question “what if the dominant species of different eras of Earth’s history kept evolving and became the dominant lifeform?” As usual, Tchaikovsky sets these ideas up brilliantly and the exploration of what a society of Trilobites looks like is fascinating. There is this cool “strangeness” paradigm that he uses in building the societies which really tapped directly into my imagination. The closer to the dawn of Earth a species is from, the longer they have been around to advance their technology – and the less they resemble humans. Thus, the older species are god-like spacefarers that humans struggle to communicate with, while the younger species are something like “rats who have cured cancer.” It was a cool way to lay out all of Earth’s history and did a better job of teaching me the differences in the prehistoric eras than any high school course did.

The tension in our story comes from reality collapsing (no biggie, obviously). A group of scientists across the parallel Earths realize that realities are starting to bleed into one another and citizens from different Earths are leaking into non-native parallel worlds and scaring the locals. They also realize that these leaks are heralding the end of all existence entirely, and decide to band together to see if they can maybe stop it.

The narrative in The Doors of Eden is split into two different story types that alternate between chapters. The first storyline is the present, where a ragtag group of characters is trying to keep reality from ending. The second storyline is academic vignettes that dive in, catalog, and explore all the different versions of Earth and how they came to be. The academic vignettes are incredible and sucked me into the book as violently as explosive decompression. The present storyline was also very enjoyable but had a couple of issues that kept me from loving it with the ferocity of the second narrative.

The vignettes have no specific characters and are told from a distant academic point of view. The present story has a myriad of characters that I had mixed feelings about. The first (and greatest) character is Kay Amal Khan – a male to female transgender math god who is leading the ‘keep reality from ending’ effort on the human side. She is funny, fierce, brilliant, and has both a scientific and personal arc that I was heavily invested in. Tchaikovsky managed to give a lot of time exploring the discriminatory garbage that trans people have to put up with while also losing none of his signature sci-fi concepts. She is wonderful and I would die for her.

Up next we actually have an antagonist, sorta. The real antagonist of the story is the heat death of the universe, but Lucas is the right-hand man of another man who isn’t improving things. Lucas is a complicated character who falls into being a bad guy and doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t necessarily have a redemption arc, but his story does an amazing job exploring how the tiny choices we make build momentum into who we become, and in some ways how our circumstances–not our inherent nature– determines whether we are good or bad. His story is great; you will have to read the book to understand it better than I can reasonably explain here.

Then we move to the lesbian teenagers in love, Lee and Mal. They are fine. Their story isn’t particularly interesting, and they don’t feel like they mesh well with the urgent narrative – but their budding relationship is still enjoyable and they have relatable personalities. They felt like they were around to catalyze a few “aha” moments for other characters and I wish they had a little more agency in the actual story.

Then we have the MI5 agents, Alison and Julian. Alison is also fine. The two of them mostly seem to exist in the story to foil the rest of the characters and argue that strange events the reader knows are happening actually aren’t happening. However, while Alison eventually becomes more integral to the story and has some agency, Julian’s entire deal is to continuously whine about how he doesn’t really love his wife and secretly wants to bone his coworker (Alison). He refers to it as the “unspoken connection” they have, then talks about it in his head constantly. Not a huge fan of him.

In addition to the characters, the science also has its ups and downs. The parts that cover the evolution of other Earths are detailed, imaginative, and exciting. However, the parts of the book that actually talk about trying to fix reality usually involve some people going off-screen and “doing some math,” then coming back and reporting whether it worked or not. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge detail as the themes and ideas of the book are more closely tied to how the characters process the multiple Earths – not the actual fixing of reality. On the other hand, given how delightfully detailed the other Earth vignettes were, I found it disappointing that Tchaikovsky just handled the crisis-solving off-screen.

Overall, The Doors of Eden is a great book with both heart and science. Tchaikovsky has a real talent and imagination for alternate realities and seems to have a vault of ideas to explore that never runs out. I absolutely loved the glimpses in Earths that could have been, but the characters that were the focus of so much of the story were a bit mixed. Still, I definitely recommend this standalone sci-fi novel as one of the most enjoyable things I have read this year.

Rating: The Doors of Eden – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Children of Time – The Web Of Life Finds A Way

51wkqa3knrlI have a confession to make. Sometimes, I can get a little vain about my ability to think about books. I also have a penchant for wanting to discuss themes in books in a way that shows how smart I think I might be. It’s a frustrating vanity I can’t seem to rid myself of. It reared its ugly head in a big way with a beautiful science fiction standalone titled Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I bought it on impulse one late night last year as it popped up as a “readers also enjoyed.” All I needed were four words: intelligent spiders in space. How could I resist such a notion, especially with an Arthur C. Clarke award and a glowing quote from Peter F. Hamilton? I read it in July 2017, and I have been struggling to put into words ever since how much I love this book. Every time I sit down to write a review, new revelations dawn on me about the book, and nothing gets written. This is my attempt to lure you into its web.

Children of Time begins far into the future, where humanity has begun to terraform planets and spread throughout the stars. A scientist by name of Avrana Kern has decided that, instead of inhabiting some of these created paradises, we should send apes down onto them with an “uplift virus” that will hyper-evolve generations of mammals towards intelligence in order to eventually have a dialogue with someone in an otherwise empty galaxy. Unsurprisingly, there is a large group of people who do not like this idea, and they attack the space station where the scientists are operating. In the chaos, Kern manages to send the virus, but fails in sending the monkeys. The virus, with nothing better to do, finds its way into something else: spiders (portia labiate). From there the story splits into semi-parallel storylines: one told from the perspective of the evolving spiders, the other told by the descendants of humanity who are recovering from the civil war sparked a thousand years ago by Kern’s vision.

Tchaikovsky’s story straddles centuries. We are introduced to a new generation of spiders every few chapters (with each generation showcasing the evolutions gained from the previous spider protagonists). The humans on the other hand manage to stretch their lives by cleverly spanning large chunks of time using cryogenic freezing chambers. He keeps the reader engaged through tight pacing and complex characters built from recognizable archetypes. Additionally, the incredible detail with which he describes the evolution of the spiders would make National Geographic’s best travel and nature writers jealous. Tchaikovsky misses no small details, providing what feels like a historical highlight reel of the spider’s physical and cultural development as the species and society progress.

That is not to say that the human story is boring, but it was harder to get engaged with their storyline. It follows the perspective of Holsten Mason, a historian of sorts who is tasked with witnessing humanity leaving Earth for the last time and document the life it is going to build for itself. The magic of this side of the story is that the constant time jumps that leave the main character, and the reader, disoriented. Every time Mason wakes up, something new has happened or some bit of information is missing, and the reader finds out what has changed alongside the character. Tchaikovsky keeps all of these perspective shifts and leaps fresh with a few tricks that provide insights into the human condition, without beating the reader over the head with them.

The characters on a whole feel organic and lived in. The humans have a touch of desperation to them that not only expresses their fears of the future, but their apprehension towards each other. They are a broken people, the children of a civil war so toxic it poisoned the Earth itself. On the flip side, the spiders feel curious, ambitious and altogether optimistic. They are a new species carving out a space in existence on a not so perfect planet, but without the baggage of history weighing them down. These and other differences are painstakingly highlighted as the novel goes on, showing different ways problems are solved without pointing out direct differences. Tchaikovsky’s use of science fiction trappings is creative and feels organic. Most of the human technology is traditional sci-fi fare, but it has a flair to it that took me aback several times. The humans’ technology feels rigid, decrepit, and built with a lack of resources. Meanwhile, the spiders are clever and flexible in their use of biological technologies. They have access to so much, and they use everything to their fullest ability. Tchaikovsky goes through great lengths to show how both species interact with their environment through use of their resources. Each species feels different and unique, making technology a theme instead of a setting. Humanity feels isolated, paranoid, and defensive, while the spiders are inclusive, challenging, and integrate themselves into the world.

I could go on about this book, peeling back its many layers, and pointing out all the clever devices that Tchaikovsky left as surprises for the readers. I could gush even more about his commentary on power in relation to information, squeal about how the main characters and their roles in society reflect the values those societies hold dear. I could blather on about how the ending is a glorious refutation of stories we as civilized, economically focused, western Europeans have told ourselves about ourselves. I could highlight that accepting and promoting the education, validity, and intelligence of a society’s oppressed groups can bring about greater freedom for everyone is a theme that both the spiders and humans share. Instead, I will say Children of Time is easily one of my favorite books of this year, if not one of my favorite books ever. It is not perfect, even though all I want to do is talk about it. The initial human chapters did nothing for me and felt standard and unexciting until I started looking backwards. It requires a lot of buy in from the reader to feel the nuances and the gears turning while reading. However, every moment of build up is worth it as the payoff is one of the coolest takes on evolution and alien competition I have ever read. The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends you check out Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Rating: Children of Time – 10/10
-Alex