Vernor Vinge: The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge, The Children Of The SkyThe Children of the Sky is Vernor Vinge’s long-awaited sequel to his 1993 Hugo Award-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep. It is set on Tines World 10 years after the action that takes place in the earlier book, following the stories of Ravna Bergsndot, Johanna and Jefri Olsndot, and various of the dog-like packs of Tines that are their friends, rivals and enemies. It also introduces the titular Children, human offspring of the Straumer scientists who set off the disastrous Blight that has wrought havoc across a wide swath of their sector of the galaxy. These Children, many of whom are now young adults or adolescents, arrived with the Olsndots and their starship in protective coldsleep and awoke to find their lives forever changed, their parents all long dead.

A recap of the first book will help make sense of all this.

The galaxy in which this story is set is divided into Zones. The outermost is the Transcend, where civilizations go when they reach godlike status. Here, all sorts of miraculous and dangerous-to-mortals transcendental-type activities can take place. A bit farther in is the Beyond, where ultra-advanced technologies are possible, including faster-than-light travel and inter-world superluminal communications. Deeper in the galaxy is the Slow Zone, from which human civilizations emerged, but where silicon-based computer chips and subluminal travel are the limits of technology. The Slow Zone is just one step above the Unthinking Depths.

The Straumers, parents of the Children, dared to enter the Upper Beyond to mine information from an ancient archive, and in their hubris they awakened the Blight, a berserker machine intelligence whose only purpose seems to be destruction of sentient carbon-based life. The rest of the “High Lab” scientists was killed by the Blight in their ship, but the Olsndots escaped in a second ship with all of the Children in coldsleep, their own two awake kids, and the Countermeasure that can stop the Blight, growing on the inner walls of their ship in the form of a mold. They dove deep, to the far lower Beyond, an earthlike world which, it turned out, was inhabited by the Tines.

The Tines — they were named by young Johanna for the prosthetic steel claws they don when doing battle — were a Medieval-level civilization of canines who were group minds. Each “pack” consisted of three to maybe eight “members” who were intelligent only as a whole. Individually, they were only slightly smarter than Earth’s dogs. The packs can communicate either vocally in “interpack” speech or almost telepathically via “tympana” membranes near their shoulders. This “mindspeak,” though, also makes it impossible for packs to get too close to each other, except to fight or mate.

The humans’ arrival of course touched off a war over the superior technology. The Olsndot parents were the first casualties, and the siblings, who were about 9 and 5 years old, were taken captive by the rival factions — Johanna by the more benign queen Woodcarver, Jefri by one of Woodcarver’s creations/offspring, Flenser and his military chief Steel. Neither child is aware the other survived.

In the meantime, the Blight has been wreaking havoc in the Beyond and even the Transcend, laying waste to worlds and even a transcendent Power called Old One. A young archivist, Ravna Bergsndot, is working at Relay, a major information transmission point in the high Beyond, when the Blight attacks. She is rescued by a warrior named Pham with shadowy origins in the Slow Zone, sent by Old One. They escape on a ship named Out Of Band II, apparently created especially for their mission into the deeps in search of the Countermeasure now on Tines World. Chased by a Blighter fleet, Pham and Ravna and another odd plantlike alien arrive in the midst of the climactic battle between Woodcarver’s and Steels’ forces, turn the battle in Woodcarver’s favor and rescue Jefri and his “best friend,” a super-smart pack of puppies called Amdi. Pham activates the Countermeasure, which causes a huge shift in the boundaries of the Zones, plunging Tines World into the Slow zone and killing Pham in the process. The shift takes with it a huge section of the galaxy, which drastically slows the Blighter fleet but also dooms countless other worlds, systems and habitats.

The Children of the Sky picks up 10 years later. Jefri is a surly teenager, Johanna  a young adult, and Ravna co-queen with Woodcarver of this realm in the polar realm of the world’s major western continent. Most of the Children, some 200 of them, were revived and have done much of their growing up on this new world, but most also have sharp and “recent” memories of their lives in the Beyond. Ravna’s focus has been on jumpstarting the world’s technology in order to fight or escape the Blighter fleet, which could arrive in 30 to 50 years.

Complicating the picture is a pack named Vendacious, who was Steel’s spy in Woodcarver’s court. After Steel lost the war, he escaped south to serve a pack named Tycoon, a successful “businesscritter.” With technology stolen from the Children, the two scheme to harness its potential, as well as that of the wild non-pack “Choir” inhabiting the world’s tropical jungles.

A further complication is that many of the Children, led by Johanna’s former fiance Nevil, resent Ravna’s rule and her focus on preparing for the Blight. Many even come to blame her for deploying the Countermeasure that robbed them of the technology they grew up with, and think she is lying when she blames their parents for awakening the Blight. Some of them may even be allies or pawns of Tycoon and Vendacious. And then there are the puzzling singletons from the tropics who occasionally arrive on shipwrecks and stay to cause disruptions.

It’s a complex and thought-provoking story of the kind at which Vinge excels. It raises some intriguing ideas and possibilities, chief among them the potential that the Tines have, should they bootstrap themselves out of the Slow Zone with Ravna’s help, that they could become powerful group minds with capabilities approaching those of computerized AIs. It seems likely, because of a few plot strands left dangling, that a third installment in the story is on the way.

Children in some ways falls prey to the Two Towers, middle-book-in-the-trilogy syndrome. It had been nearly 20 years since I read A Fire Upon the Deep, so I re-read it before tackling the sequel. It was as interesting and action-packed as I vaguely recalled, a book that has held up quite well, because in spite of the difficulty in summarizing its plot, it was really quite straightforward. It had a limited number of main characters, in three groups, all heading toward a mutual encounter.

This book, like its predecessor, is told in limited third-person, mostly from Ravna’s or Johanna’s point of view, with a few strategic excursions into some of the lesser characters. That means that for the most part, the reader knows only what that limited number of characters knows, even though a bunch of additional characters and several plotlines have been introduced. We get brief glimpses early in the book at what Vendacious and Tycoon are up to, but then nothing more on them for a couple of hundred pages. When some individuals are kidnapped, we don’t find out what has happened to them until one of the main characters finds out; and when some of the main characters are similarly trundled off, we only know what is happening with them, not what’s happening back in Newcastle Town in their absence. To quote one reviewer of the 2011 movie based on John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “not quite knowing what’s going on starts to seem like part of the point.”

We also get a lot of exposition about the politics in the transformed Woodcarver’s realm, but never learn what is in Nevil the antagonist’s mind. He remains a two-dimensional villain. In essence, the first two-thirds of the book are exposition and setting up the action, which takes place in the final third. That action, when it does happen, is entertaining, and Children becomes the page-turner that its prequel was from beginning to end. But I found the climax to be anticlimactic, the denouement a bit lengthy.

Still, The Children of the Sky is better than much of the science fiction that gets published in a given year. And it’s good to get back to the Tines’ world. I’m holding out hope that the next installment (if I’m right and there is one) picks up the pace a bit.

(Tor, 2011)

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