Playback speed
Share post
Share post at current time

Other worlds, science fiction, and spider ecology

episode 69 | interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky

What if a spider was the size of a cat? Abandoning Earth to live in deep space would start to make sense.

My guest today is a science fiction writer whose novel Children of Time imagines rapidly evolving spiders, ants that can clear a forest, and a desperate crew of humanity’s last survivors.

He often writes stories with an interest in animal worlds, which have won and been nominated for several awards. Children of Time won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2023 Hugo Award.

His latest book is Alien Clay, and his next book Service Model will be out in June.

We spoke about spider ecology, science fiction, and British people's distaste for awards, in March 2024.

Ryan: You've said before that something you’re shooting for, as a fiction author, is a world that feels real and is bigger than the book. How does that shape the early stages of a writing project?

Adrian: For me, the world always comes first. I get immersed in the world to understand how it works, and from that the characters and the story arise.

I always wanted to present environments and creatures, and I use the story and characters as a vehicle to do that. It is a backwards way of doing things compared to many authors. But I want people who are reading my books to feel they are reading about a place that has an existence beyond the specific circumstance and people they’re meeting.

Ryan: You have a lot of interesting non-human characters in your stories. How do you decide which aspects of an animal's ecology or behavior you want to incorporate?

Adrian: My starting point is frequently the sensorium. If you know how a creature apprehends the world, that tells you a lot about how it thinks, what is important to it, what it will react to, and you can build out from that. It's a starting point to get out of a human mindset. 

With the spiders in Children of Time, or the octopuses in Children of Ruin, the sensorium is a big part of it. I research the species, find people to talk to, or books that are geared toward the moderately interested layman.

I learn about features of the life cycle, what we understand of the cognition or behavior, and each feature is like a stone dropped into a pool, it ripples and I see where it goes.

What does it mean about their problem-solving, their outlook, or how they interact with each other?

Ryan: I liked the phrase "measuring legs". Could you describe what that meant?

Adrian: "Measuring legs" is in my book Children of Time. It's the spider-equivalent of a dick-measuring contest.

There are spider mating and threat displays that involve raising the legs, so you're getting a sense of the size and physical power of the other spider by how energetic it is, how big the legs are, and the span.

As the society goes on they don't do that physically, but it becomes a watch-word for someone trying to throw their weight around and show you how important they are.

It's based on real spider behavior.

Ryan: The largest fossil spider was half the size of its modern relative. What do you think about the constraints that keep spiders small? Is it a coincidence of evolution that they haven't had larger bodies?

Adrian: It's fascinating that we live in the age of giant spiders right now.

There was a point when we thought there was a very large Carboniferous spider which has been re-interpreted as a marine scorpion.1

In the Carboniferous there were very large arthropods going about. There was a millipede, Arthropleura, about 6 foot long. We know it was land-bound because we have tracks and partial fossils. We know they could get very big.

It's not the simple fact of having an exoskeleton or ways of breathing that are the hard limiters for spider size.

Why wasn't there a big spider? Maybe there was and we haven't found it, or maybe there was never one because the spider lifestyle precluded it.

I talk about in Children of Time how spiders have book lungs, which are a more efficient respiration system than insects. And insects certainly got very large in the Carboniferous period.

It's possible early spiders moved on to web spinning, and presumably there is a limit to how big you can get and sit on a web.

But we haven't found a fossil spider as big as the modern bird-eating spider or Goliath spider. It's a fascinating point of paleontology because there are close relatives like scorpions that got very big.

Ryan: With the technology of silk it seems like they would have had an opportunity for success and gotten big.

Adrian: You have to remember that getting big doesn't necessarily equate to success. There's some kind of biological mechanism, where if things have a clear run at getting big, they do so, and it is possibly because of things like breeding success.

Size is frequently related with perceived fitness. If you can physically shut your rivals out of the way, as happened with a lot of beetle species. But being big has a lot of disadvantages. It's energetically costly. It potentially makes you more vulnerable to predation because you can't hide as well.

If you look at insects, you realize very quickly being big does not mean success. Frequently insects are successful because they're not big.

Ryan: What were you like as a kid?

Adrian: It wasn't something people were saying at the time, but I was probably quite severely autistic. I did not get on with people. I had enormously strong fascinations. I was repeatedly told by teachers and primary school that if I tried to drag spiders into everything, I would never get anywhere in life, which is advice that I thankfully ignored.

I was a huge sci-fi buff. I loved Doctor Who. I loved Star Wars. I was like a lot of science-fiction fans and writers. Around the age of 13, I got into role-playing games, another common hobby for writers of my generation. I never stopped playing them since. I'm in three active games at the moment.

Ryan: Do you think humans are the only animal that imagines fictitious creatures? Is that tied to our facility of language and story-telling, or could it be tied to dreams?

Adrian: That's a fascinating question. Well, obviously we can't know. I like to think that level of imagination evolved earlier, and that it isn't necessarily tied to language.

When you bring language into the mix, you're able to communicate your imaginings to others. And in that conversation, build upon it, so that your imaginative life becomes a lot richer.

Dreams are not simply the replaying of memories. There is an imaginative element to dreams. A lot of animals seem to have dream-like experiences, as we see from brain activity, including jumping spiders.2

Jumping spiders have a mobile eye component. They have very advanced eyes for spiders. We see eye movement during REM-like sleep.

If you're seeing a thing in a dream, you are kind of imagining a fictitious thing. Whatever sense they're using in dreams go beyond simply recreating a thing that exists in the real world...I don't know.

The possibility would seem to be inherent in the experience of dreaming. You can go beyond the bounds of reality because you're not simply replaying your actual memories.

For species with a simpler cognition, dreaming may be little more than what we would feel as very unformed experiences.

We may never know, but I think it's inherent in the nature of dreams that some confabulation is going on.

Ryan: What's an animal that you would bring back from extinction?

Adrian: Mammoths are the classic one. If a mammoth is anything like an elephant, and we have reason to believe it is, elephants are social creatures. If elephants became extinct, and then you re-create an elephant, which we could probably do that, it isn't really an elephant because elephants are a product of generational society and learning going back thousands of years.

If you wipe out elephants and then bring back an elephant or even some elephants it would be like some aliens come along and just re-create a bunch of people from genetic samples. The culture would be missing.

Richard Attenborough's aim in Jurassic Park is basically banal entertainment that owes nothing to any kind of real spirit of science. It's just like, "hey we've got a mammoth" and then five minutes later everyone has seen the mammoth and nobody cares.

Ryan: If somebody gave you the big red button to push to bring back something from the past 10 million years are you leaning towards not pressing it?

Adrian: If somebody gave me the big red button for Jaekelopterus, the 8 foot sea scorpion, to fill the ocean with those, I'm not sure I'd be able to restrain myself. But I don't think it would be a good idea.

I'm certainly not immune to bad ideas.

Ryan: Are there any rare old books you've drawn inspiration from?

Adrian: I've got a Dune special edition on my shelf. I don't generally get ahold of antique books.

An old fascinating book is the Voynich manuscript. It remains a complete enigma. This is a book from the 1400s.3 It's this big fully illustrated tomb that's completely incomprehensible. It's written in a nonsense alphabet. It has all these bizarre pseudo alchemical looking illustrations. Nobody knows if it is an elaborate joke or whether it's encoded language or what is going on. New theories pop up every so often about what the voyage manuscript is.

Either it means something, even if it just means this nonsense alchemy that doesn't work, or is this phenomenal practical joke that someone must have spent years over. And there was kind of a market at the time. People were very much into various kinds of occult studies and sciences. So quite possibly making a nonsense book and then selling it for thousands of duckets or whatever would have been a worthwhile venture.

But we don't know.

Ryan: We recently flew past the Turing test with ChatGPT. Do you think scaling up large language models could summon an artificial general intelligence?

Adrian: Pretty definitively no. It's a pattern mimicking machine. There's nothing in the functioning that leaves room for a self to develop.

It kind of makes me despair that we are calling these things AIs. In science fiction AI has been like Data from Star Trek, someone who is very logical, rooted in truth and accuracy, and rather confused by vibe.

What you get out of a language models is all vibe and very little recognition of truth or meaning. And that's a problem because people are using AI to produce what should be factual books.

A famous one a little while ago was a guide to edible mushrooms entirely AI generated. You can't do a mushroom guide with AI. You'll get people killed.

It doesn't care whether the information is true. It cares whether it looks like the sort of thing that would be in a guide to mushrooms.

Ryan: How do you think about humanity’s existential risk or the risk of being knocked back to the Stone Age, and what we need to change in the world to make you feel more optimistic about our chances not crashing in the next century?

Adrian: Human nature. Our attitude towards leadership. We’re easily hijacked by a narrow group of people with a profound interest in maintaining the status quo because it will give them a bump in profits in the next quarter, who don't care what happens in five years time, or believe their power and money will insulate them.

We have the technology to sort ourselves out.

What we need is government not deeply concerned about the profits of the fossil fuel industry and the other industries that are causing problems. We need a more science–led approach.

I don't think we're going to get it, but I think it's doable. If we fail to save ourselves, and we do end up back in the Stone Age, we only have ourselves to blame.

Ryan: It's interesting the relationships people have with a ship, like a life raft, a refuge, but also a trap. If you had to live in a submarine, an Arctic research station, a desert tunnel, colony, or a space colony, which one are you signing up for?

Adrian: I think space would be the most challenging. I would be hopeless in zero gravity. I suspect I would be best off in the arctic because I'm not particularly fond of hot weather.

It comes down to people. You need to choose your neighbors. I could live anywhere, but if the person in the next room was fond of blasting loud music all the time that would drive me crazy, far more than just being in the Antarctic.

Ryan: An alien spaceship has arrived on Earth and requested to speak with you. After getting dressed and having a meal, you have 30 minutes to prepare. A helicopter is on its way to pick you up. How would you prepare for first contact?

Adrian: I do not subscribe to the human-like alien idea, which is beloved by some sci-fi writers and philosophers. I don't subscribe to the philanthropic theory, that the universe is kind of geared up by its mechanisms to produce human-like life.

Anything that has evolved on another world would be more alien to us than anything we know on earth.

If it's got a spaceship, then it's presumably got a fairly advanced concept of how physics works, how the universe works. You'd have some overlap in outlook on that basis.

I’d study the cliff notes for particle physics, and how stars work, astrophysics primers so we'd have something that we're both familiar with to talk about.

When sending for me in a situation like that, I guess they're probably spiders.

Other than that, just an open mind because aliens are going to be alien.

I think the closest we've got to it in film is probably arrival, the adaptation of the Ted Jones story. Because the aliens in that are gloriously alien. Both physically and in outlook.

Ryan: Do you have a ritual when you're writing like going for a walk?

Adrian: Breaking the routine, going on a journey, even just spending the night away from home, these things have served to unlock the imagination. Usually there’s a problem I’m working on, where I need a change of surroundings to help me fix.

When I'm away from home there are fewer distractions, and more my mind can be occupied with the problem.

Once I've had a bit of interaction with the alien species, that would be the time to get away, have a bit of a head clearing.

I tend to need to find answers for myself, which is a sort of neurodivergent trait I have. But for a writer, that's probably a useful way of going about things.

Ryan: On your website you recently announced you would no longer recognize your 2023 Hugo award due to the disenfranchisement of Chinese voters after works were left out of the competition for fear of causing political offense.4 There have been a couple resignations and committee changes. How do you feel about that situation now?

Adrian: I have every faith that they are doing all they can to to remedy that. People who were involved in last year's decision are no longer in the picture.

It's definitely a singular and unusual example of people not following the rules they were supposed to follow. Maybe they were thinking they had been in that position long enough that it was their show to run the way they wanted.

I used to do amateur dramas, and I sat in on committee meetings, and you get the same kind of thing there. There are people who have been around a long time and are the institutional memory, and it's all fun and games until someone disagrees with them.

Regulations are supposed to keep the excesses of personality from tugging the whole thing into murky waters.

I wasn’t the first to take action, but it was specifically when it came out that one couldn't rely on the shortlists to genuinely reflect the desires of the people who were eligible and permitted to vote…the decisions to get rid of a large number of votes at the whim of the people involved. On that basis, I couldn't say that I should've been on the list to be voted on, let alone win the thing. So [rejecting it] seemed to be the only thing to do at that point.

Ryan: I heard a joke that British people don't like to win awards, and they also don't like to see other people win awards.

Ryan: Parrots or corvids. Which one do you think is closer to gaining the ability to tell stories?

Adrian: That's a tricky question because they are both at the top of their game as far as intelligence goes. Parrots are very good vocal mimics. I dedicated Children of Memory to a parrot called Alex, who was able to verbally solve problems, answer questions, and even innovate word phrasing. Parrots are enormously intelligent.

Corvids can adapt tools. They can learn observationally more quickly than humans.

Birds have very small brains. A flying bird has an inherent weight limit, and that means the brain can never get too big. But birds seem to do incredibly complicated things with their relatively small brains.

Maybe human brains are really just undisciplined in the way they're organized. And that may give us some of the things that make us human. Because there are certainly cognitive things going on in a human brain that other species don't seem to have, and it may be because we have this enormous excess of gray matter.

I think I would just about tip over to Corvids because they seem to have a more practical intelligence, and tool using. But it's gotta be a close run.

There's a bit of a flowering of animal behavioral study at the moment. One of the things that people tend to find is wherever you look, the animals tend to be a little smarter than we thought.

Parrots are very social animals. That’s one thing about keeping lone parrots. That's actually maybe not the best thing to do because parents really need society.

One reason parrots interact a lot with humans is because they are kind of desperate for company. In the wild they live in enormous colonies and they're very pushed for space. That seems to be one of the big drivers of intelligence, the fact that you have to know where you stand with a very large number of neighbors, social intelligence. I can push around that guy, but I can't push him around, and that kind of thing.

That's one thing they found with prairie dogs. They seem to have an incredibly sophisticated language system. They have the ability to lie to other prairie dogs, which is hilarious. They can describe very specific things to one another about what threats are around. And again they are creatures that live in very large community groups, closely packed in, and they are very competitive within their group, and that's got to be a driver for a certain type of intelligence.

Ryan: Do you have a favorite example of ecology in science-fiction, from another author?

Adrian: Sue Burke's Semiosis has an ecology that is dominated by interrelated sapience, that to a human viewpoint, is plant life. The whole ecology is being run by the plants in this enormous interconnected community.5

Ryan: What is the difference between theory of mind and empathy? How do you encourage a child to be cooperative?

Adrian: I suppose if you have theory of mind and not empathy you’re somewhere on the sociopath scale. You understand in-theory that other people think, and that is how you manipulate them. But you don't feel for them or register them as real, other entities in the world. They’re a shell in your mental map.

We have this idea of children as selfish, and frequently they are. But my own observation with my son growing up is that empathy for other can be quite deep rooted.

Frequently when we see children being selfish, it is because they don't think ahead. It's a matter of being able to project cause and effect further into the future, getting past immediate gratification.

That feels like the human problem in miniature. We talked about what we have to change. Corporate behavior. What people are willing to burn down for short term political gain.

This is in my current book I'm writing. If we start to live longer, what happens if you get the selfish billionaire who has effectively made themselves immortal by spending the GDP of a small country on gene surgery and so forth.

Are they still the selfish billionaire a hundred and fifty years later, or have they started to realize, “I’ve done a certain amount of sewing, but I've done a hell of a lot of reaping. Maybe I should make fewer short-term decisions because I'm going to have to live with the consequences.

It's often said that we as a species are not set up for long-term thinking, the problems of climate change are longer than a human life span.

But we're setup for much better long-term thinking than is frequently exhibited by people calling shots in the world. We are quite capable of planting trees to shade our descendants.

Ryan: Thank you so much taking time to talk today.

Adrian: Thank you very much.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest book is Alien Clay, and his next book Service Model will be out in June. His website is

Adrian Tchaikovsky

Largest fossil arthropod, a marine scorpion


Statement on the 2023 Hugo Award controversy

Ryan's Corner
Ryan's Corner
Interviews with zoology and animal behavior researchers and writers.