The Children of the Sky is Vernor Vinge’s sequel to his iconic book A Fire Upon the Deep, which was first released almost twenty years ago (that sentence makes me feel kind of old…alas). Another Vinge book, A Deepness in the Sky, is set in the same universe but is largely unrelated to the other two, and there have been various other related works as well. Children is the first direct sequel though, set in the ten years following the events of Fire, and follows up on some of its unresolved threads. As such, this review will necessarily have spoilers from Fire; but if you haven’t read that book sometime in the last twenty years you really should forget about this review and go do so immediately as it’s a work of tremendous scope and imagination. Children will be released in October, though pre-orders are available now.
Following the activation of Countermeasure at the end of Fire, Ravna Bergsndot and the child survivors that fled the Blight have been left stranded on the Tines’ planet at the bottom of a newly-expanded Slow Zone. But Ravna’s ongoing fear is that Countermeasure was, at best, a temporary solution. The Blight’s fleet is still out there–maybe stranded in interstellar space and limited to sublight travel, but still an irresistible force should it manage to solve the minor problem of being thirty light years away from its target. Since defending against the fleet if it arrives at Tines’ World is a laughable concept under the current conditions, she sets out to raise the Tines’ technology level as fast and as far as is possible under the restrictions of life in the Slow Zone.
In addition to the children now woken from cold sleep, Ravna also has the help of many of the Tines themselves. Woodcarver remains her industrious self, if somewhat slowed by the addition of a new member to her pack; Woodcarver’s assistant Scrupilo is eager to build the new technologies that Ravna digs out of the Out of Band II‘s computer (referred to as Oobii in this book); even the Tyrathect/Flenser remnant seems to be taking a new outlook on the world and offering support in his own unique way. Other villains remain unreformed, though. Vendacious, having escaped punishment for his crimes against, well, everybody, sets his sights on finding a new power base to manipulate to his will. He finds it in Tycoon, a rich and creative pack from the Eastern end of the continent who has his own reason to be interested in the humans. Between the two of them they have the resources to cause serious headaches to Woodcarver and Ravna–including a stolen Oliphant computer that ensures high technology will spread beyond Woodcarver’s domain.
But while Tycoon and Vendacious may be long term threats and the Blight fleet is an apocalypse on the distant horizon, Ravna is blindsided by a problem that might make all her other planning moot. Unwilling to believe that their parents could create the Blight that led to such widespread destruction, the children Ravna brought out of cold sleep are spinning a new history that supports their deep denial. In their narrative the Blight was more likely to be a savior than an evil, and they see proof of this all around them. After all, Countermeasure is the force that plunged uncounted worlds into the bleakness of the Slow Zone, causing damage that goes far beyond anything they could imagine their parents unleashing. And if Countermeasure was the cosmic evil, what does that make Ravna, and why should they support her efforts to defend against the coming fleet?
As a long time fan of Vinge, I have a great deal of faith in his ability to tell compelling stories based in worlds that are uniquely fascinating. (My reviews of some of his other books, The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime are also on this site, along with Kristen’s review of A Fire Upon the Deep.) I have to be honest and say that my faith was tested a bit by Children. Unfortunately, I think I fell victim to the expectations game. Fire is a book of massive scope, which I re-read just before Kristen came back from BEA with Children. I was expecting the follow-up to match its scale, but Children is a much different kind of story, more interested in political machinations than gods and their Beyonder waldos.
The two main sources of conflict are a clash of empires between Woodcarver and Tycoon and a clash of ideologies between Ravna and the children in denial of what their parents unleashed. Threads of each conflict weave nicely into the other, setting up a chain of events that has both global and very personal implications. The main characters are presented as complex struggles between what they really believe and what they only want to believe, generating emotional tension that lives up to the events of the Oobii‘s race to the Tines’ World in Fire. The only character that doesn’t quite get fleshed out is Vendacious, who has a bit of a pure villain feel to him; but given that Fire‘s entire premise was built around a malevolent god this is a pretty minor complaint that is easily overshadowed by the excellence of Ravna, Johanna, and the rest.
Amidst all of the conflict, readers are treated to a look at how Vinge envisions the rebuilding of a technological society. Again, there are competing models presented: Ravna is desperate to apply her great knowledge (well, Oobii‘s great knowledge) to Woodcarver’s relatively limited resources and take great leaps up the technological scale, skipping entire eras of human development. Tycoon has far less information to work with, but great amounts of labor, money, and time. He also doesn’t have the fear of the Blight fleet to drive him along a vastly accelerated timeline. The result is an emerging era of airships and radios that is decidedly (and mercifully) not steampunk in any way, and much more interesting because of it.
Children tells an excellent story in and of itself, but as a sequel to Fire there are some disappointments–several of which are actively encouraged by Vinge along the way:
- The Countermeasure status quo at the end of Fire means that the Blight fleet is more boogeyman than physical threat. Vinge uses the specter of that threat marvelously–the entire story is built around it–but for somebody like me who wants to see more than the specter those constant references become a tease for what I’m really after. And yet…
- The implications of the Tines’ pack form were explored in Fire, and the species gets much more attention in Children. The major new concept for the Tines is their mob organization. It was only mentioned referentially in Fire, but in Children the half-mindless Tine mobs of the tropics become a significant player for what appears to be the first time in the history of the planet. An ad-hoc entity named godsgift emerges to give a face to the Tropicals, exposing the mob to be much more than, well, a mob. Again, though, expectation made godsgift feel a bit flat to me. In Fire we are not only introduced to the Tines’ packs, but also given the opportunity to play with the implications of those packs: the radio cloaks, Flenser’s plan to survive death, and even the pseudo-eugenics programs are all levers that Vinge used to great effect in showing us the alienness of the packs. We aren’t given those same toys to play with the idea of godsgift’s mob organization. And yet…
- While Ravna, Johanna and Jefri are all major players in Children, the human cast is greatly expanded by the addition of the cold sleep children and ten years pass in the first few chapters to allow them to age into their roles. We are given hints about what they do on the planet, but with one exception we don’t really see what they are doing as part of the hybrid Tine/human society. Some interesting ideas are thrown out there, but aren’t deeply explored: for example, there is a Best Friends program where a human and a pack are put together as partners who live, work, and play together that is critical to the relationships in the story, but we never are given much more information than the fact that it is a thing that exists. And yet…
And yet…reading between the lines of Children is almost as intriguing as reading what is on the page. For each of the questions above there are hints at a much deeper story going on that none of the characters are aware of–hints that are too frequent to be accidental. In addition, there is a reveal about two-thirds of the way through the book that could just be a convenient way of tying in some events from Fire but seems to me like it has larger implications, at least in the context of the rest of shadow-story. I was left with the conclusion that Children has to be the middle book of a trilogy, with all of these developments being played out in a finale to come. However, as far as I know no third book has been announced. If a third book is coming, then it is set up very well and all of the seeds that are planted throughout Children should yield a marvelous harvest. If not, then Children–though very good, and with a story that is internally tied up–feels incomplete to me and I am left feeling frustrated.
The Children of the Sky is a a typically wonderful tale from a master storyteller in Vinge. It is only in comparison to the iconic A Fire Upon the Deep that it fails to live up to expectations. Even then, if a third book is forthcoming then all of the groundwork being laid in Children becomes truly brilliant, crafted with subtlety and providing exactly enough information to fire the imagination and plant questions for what is to come. Since I don’t know if that book is ever going to be written, I’m giving a provisional rating to The Children of the Sky. As a sequel only, it gets an 8/10, but if it is a bridge book…frankly, it is one of the best that I have ever read and worthy of a 10/10. Since I believe Vinge is too good a storyteller to have done all of this setup by accident, I’m going on the assumption that book three will be coming and calling it 10/10*.
*UPDATED on 7/6/11: After I wrote this review Kristen contacted Tor, and they either don’t know or aren’t telling if there is a followup planned (understandably). Because of this, I have decided to revert the final rating to 8/10.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: Kristen picked up an advanced reading copy at BEA (signed, even!)