The Children of the Sky
- by Vernor Vinge
- HC, Tor, © 2011, 448 pp, ISBN 978-0-312-87562-6
Without knowing whether Vernor Vinge would ever write one, a sequel to his outstanding 1993 novel A Fire Upon The Deep has been eagerly awaited by his fans for 18 years. Unfortunately that sequel, The Children of the Sky, is quite a disappointment, having little of what made Fire such a great book (it’s one of my all-time favorites).
The book follows the lives of the humans who were stranded on Tines’ World following the defeat of the Blight in Fire. Ravna Bergsndot is the sole human with direct experience of the Blight, and who knows that a Blighter fleet is surely heading for them at slower-than-light speed. Helping to raise the children marooned on the world, the children of the scientists who released the Blight, Ravna also co-rules the local nation of Tines – the wolf-like pack minds of the planet – with the erratic Queen Woodcarver. Together they hope to bootstrap the planet to a more advanced level of technology in time to face the Blighter fleet.
The crux of the story are the challenges Ravna faces in her goals. Distrust among the Tiners in Woodcarver’s domain is the least of it; many children have reached adulthood and not only resent that they don’t have the technology they grew up with (including life extension treatments, which Ravna has completed), but some of them doubt Ravna’s word that the Blight is a threat, believing that their parents could never have released such an evil, and seeing the results of Ravna’s crew’s actions in Fire which stranded them there as more sinister. And a scheming Tine named Vendacious has allied himself with a powerful entrepreneur and rival to Woodcarver named Tycoon who seem to be pacing – if not outstripping – the humans in development.
While Children is a capably-written book, it’s missing the ideas content that is the hallmark of Vinge’s books. Indeed, A Fire Upon the Deep is a great novel not just because it’s well written, but because it throws out terrific ideas – and explores them in depth – with a frequency and density rarely encountered elsewhere in SF. Fire is a tall act to live up to – neither of Vinge’s next two books, including the prequel A Deepness in the Sky – really do so, but Children is perhaps his least ambitious book since.
The most compelling idea in the book is the notion of the “Choir”, the huge mass of Tines who live in the world’s tropics and have a rather different society than the lands of discrete packs such as Woodcarver’s. And it adds some small twists to the old chestnut of a plot where a few advanced people try to bootstrap a medieval society to a higher technology. But the book doesn’t build much more on the nature of the Tines – showing, I guess, just how deeply the race was explored in Fire – and doesn’t expand on the Zones of Thought or the Blight at all (the threat of the Blight hangs over the first half of the book, but if you’re hoping for a big showdown between the human/Tine alliance and the Blight at the end, you’re going to be disappointed). It’s a book of local political machinations rather than groundbreaking science fictional ideas.
For what it is, the book is pretty good, though rather slow to develop. The characters are enjoyable enough, and a few of them develop in interesting ways, but they’re not enough to really carry the book. If a book of politics and gamesmanship is what you want to read, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
But while the Tines are interesting, what I really wanted from a sequel to Fire was something that further developed the Zones of Thought that delineate areas of the galaxy and introduced some interesting new aliens. What Children actually is was quite disappointing to me.