Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

May 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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It’s no surprise that Vernor Vinge decided to revisit the Zones of Thought setting of A Fire Upon the Deep for his next novel, A Deepness in the Sky, published seven years later in 1999. What was surprising was that A Deepness in the Sky was a Pham Nuwen-oriented prequel set entirely in the Slow Zone. I remember feeling slightly disappointed and even a little perplexed by this. I really liked the Zones of Thought setting, but a story set in the Slow Zone is in basically the same setting as every non-FTL SF space opera. Admittedly that’s not a crowded genre, exactly, and certainly my disappointment quickly faded when I read and enjoyed the actual book, but it still seemed like an odd choice.

Fast forward to the end of last year, when after leaving the setting on the shelf for a decade, Vinge published Children of the Sky, a true sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep…that is nevertheless set entirely in the Slow Zone.

Now that I am older and theoretically wiser than I was in 1999, I recognize that the same Singularity theory that made the Beyond and the Transcend so interesting in A Fire Upon the Deep also ties Vinge’s hands. It is sometimes forgotten that he made the allusion to black holes not because, or not merely because, he thought technological process would become faster and faster, the way something falls faster and faster into a black hole. The real analogy was with the black hole’s event horizon, for Vinge thought that it is impossible to predict what will happen once superintelligence was achieved. To then go and tell stories about it would be fatally inconsistent with his thinking.

With the benefit of having recently reread A Fire Upon the Deep, I could see an additional plus to a sequel that focused solely on the Tines’ World: the Tines strand of Fire‘s two-sided story was considerably stronger and had more interesting things to say even if it lacked some of the glitz and special effects of the space opera portion.

Children of the Sky is a sequel, then, but although Ravna is now the main character it is really a sequel to the setting and concerns of the Tines’ World portion of A Fire Upon the Deep. Though Ravna casts plenty of nervous glances skyward and there is a lot of foreshadowing in the direction of a rematch with the Blight, this is left for a further sequel and this novel remains firmly on the ground. Given that I really enjoyed the Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep, I still had every reason to expect to enjoy the novel.

But I did not. One of the things I liked about A Fire Upon the Deep that allowed me to overlook its flaws was the flood of new and interesting ideas. Children keeps the Tines concept more or less unchanged. Oh, it fills in some detail about the massive group minds in the tropics that were alluded to but not explained in its predecessor, but although there are hints that the tropical Tines aren’t the mindless savages the temperate Tines believe their hive lifestyle requires, nothing ever comes of it. Perhaps this too is being saved for a later sequel.

What does change are the characters, but alas, with results that ill-serve most of the sympathetic (and some of the unsympathetic) Tine characters. Woodcarver becomes foolish thanks to a breeding miscalculation, Pilgrim is assimilated into society enough that he’s now just a generic nice guy, and the most intriguing character of all, the mad scientist/naive schoolteacher hybrid Flenser Tyrathect, is left languishing on the story’s sidelines. Stepping into the spotlight is a boring villain and a cipher called Tycoon. Tycoon appears to have been intended as a vehicle for extending the first novel’s concept of the fluidity of Tine identity, but because he spends the entire novel being easily manipulated by the real villain (who is even more dull), it’s hard to see him as anything more than a naif.

One reason the Tine characters aren’t very compelling this time around is the narrative focuses almost entirely on the human characters. Here Vinge has the germ of an interesting idea: everyone but Ravna was a child during the High Lab disaster that unleashed the Blight at the beginning of the first book, and they have only her explanation about what happened, an explanation that positions their parents as the idiots whose recklessness caused a galactic cataclysm. Dissatisfied with the implications Ravna’s historical narrative has for their own identity as well as the slow, measured pace she has adopted for technological uplift on Tines’ World, conspirators create conditions for a coup d’etat to drive Ravna from her position of power over human society. Behind all this is the question that A Fire Upon the Deep also asked: how do you decide who to trust in a world where information is perfectly malleable and even dangerous?

That’s an interesting question, but the way Children answers it varies from dull to dreadful. Right from the beginning, the narrative leaves no room for doubt that Ravna is right about everything. Her intentions are completely good, her policies are optimal, and if she’s ever done anything wrong in her life, it’s that as a truth-loving scientist she’s not cynical enough to play politics. Her political opponent, who I will not name because his identity is carefully concealed for the first portion of the book (though it will be blazingly obvious to most readers), presents a wise and caring face to the world but in fact turns out to be both foolish and monstrously evil. Why he behaves like this is never explained. At the beginning of the story, every human character from Ravna to his fiancee to his friends and acquaintances are convinced that he’s literally the most reasonable and responsible human on the planet. But it turns out they were wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely wrong. Somehow no one else saw his true nature even though everyone has known him since he was a small child. Apparently he was not only just born evil, he was born with the capacity to completely conceal it from everyone around him. Late in the story, a sympathetic character wins an argument with Ravna and the other good guys with the following completely serious observation: “So far no one has overestimated [character name]‘s capacity for evil.” No responses are even presented, the narrative just moves on, accepting her conclusion as self-evident. His capacity for evil, as far as this story is concerned, is more or less unbounded and cannot be overestimated.

Now in a wild space opera like A Fire Upon the Deep, this sort of cartoon psychology might be a little annoying, but cardboard villains are par for the course in adventure stories. But unlike its predecessor Children of the Sky is not a space opera, it’s an intrigue story that’s full of plotting, characters speculating about other characters’ motivations and whose side they’re on, and so forth. The lack of any sense of psychological realism makes much of this incomprehensible. It also deprives the novel of even the slightest shade of gray. Ravna is Right, her enemies are Evil, and the humans and Tines who don’t realize this are Wrong and will be Very Sorry when they are shown the error in their ways. The only room for discussion is how best wake them up to these facts. Some of this might be defended as an attempt by Vinge to ground the third person narrative within Ravna’s subjective frame of reference. The young pack member within Woodcarver who causes her to doubt Ravna’s intentions, for example, is referred to by the narrative as The Puppy from Hell without any qualifiers linking the label to Ravna’s internal thoughts, so even though the story uses other viewpoints to relate plenty of scenes Ravna isn’t present for and never learns of, perhaps we’re to understand the entire story as being somehow told from her point of view? But then you see that the puppy’s name, surely a detail we can assume is an objective fact and not a subjective element of the narrative, turns out to be, I kid you not, “Sht”, and you realize that, no, the author is just doing everything he can to stack the deck.

As is usually the case with such narratives, this deck-stacking has the effect of draining events of anything that might complicate the story’s simplistic world and thus make it genuinely interesting. Earlier I said Ravna is unseated by a coup d’etat because that’s how the narrative presents it, but what really happens is there is a transition to democracy. Is this a bad thing? Of course, Vinge tells us, because this allows a demagogue to take power. Any doubts can be put to bed because this demagogue turns out to be history’s greatest monster, and the fact he fooled the electorate means they need a return to Ravna’s benevolent despotism. Never mind that Ravna herself was among those fooled. Her response to all this is to go and, in a scene which I reread searching in vain for signs it was some sort of parody, read ebooks about how to manipulate electorates so she can outwit him. This is a society of about a hundred literate and educated adults, incidentally, without any of the bureaucracy that diffuses responsibility in modern governments.

I can imagine some arguments justifying the book’s politics. Maybe losing their parents has left the Children too emotionally unstable to be trusted with democracy. Maybe the dislocation of being stranded on a low technology world after living in the Beyond has them unmoored. Maybe they aren’t sufficiently educated to understand the technological path toward high technology. The novel doesn’t really make any of these arguments, and it is wise not to do so, because Ravna doesn’t come off looking too great as an alternative. As an adult she might have been better able to withstand having her parents killed by the Blight, but she was probably more impacted by the loss of her entire civilization. Like the Children she was a product of a high technology civilization and had to learn everything they’re using on Tines’ World from the same tutorials they used, and when it comes to technological adaptation being older is if anything a disadvantage (a theme Vinge thoroughly explored in Rainbows End).

One gets the feeling that Vinge passed up the chance to tell a psychologically interesting story because he was more interested in the psychology of the reader. All of Children of the Sky‘s biggest failings stem from the author’s desire to maximize the narrative impact at the expense of nuance. The reader is encouraged to empathize with Ravna, who is not only the protagonist but the only one who shares the reader’s knowledge of the space portions of A Fire Upon the Deep. The other holdover characters from Fire who might share this allegiance are given comparatively little time. Ravna (and the reader) know what’s true, and therefore she knows the right thing to do, but almost everyone doubts her and believes the lies told about her. Toward the end of the story, when they finally realize how wrong they were, they beg Ravna to save them. This is a powerful narrative template, one that Vinge has deployed far more successfully once before already with Pham Nuwen in A Deepness in the Sky and to a lesser extent also in A Fire Upon the Deep.

Over the years Vinge’s writing has had its ups and downs and hasn’t always fulfilled the potential of his ideas, but this is the first time he’s written a book that seemed almost devoid of new ideas at all. He didn’t win his awards and get close to the genre’s A-list because of his mastery of character or even plot, and without the lift from new ideas that was so powerful in his best work, Children of the Sky never gets off the ground.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Thank you for your review. It is well argued and stimulating.
    I discovered Vinge with this book that someone offered to me, and I really liked it because I am new to the idea of the Tines packs, among others. But I was uneasy about something in the plot, and it’s only after reading your review that I realized this is because of the manichean opposition between Ravna and her political opponent.
    Even worse is the fact that, as you point out, Ravna is actually a despot and *** is a democratically elected person. It would have been really awesome if Vinge had been more subtle in his treatment of all this. Maybe for the next one?
    I’ll read AFUTD meanwhile.

  2. After loving “Fire” and the “Deepness” even more, I had to drop “Children” midway through – pretty much after the “coup” scene unfolds. I felt the whole thing was, in a way, deeply offensive. On one hand, there’s exactly what you mention: the clash is Manichean when really it needs not be, the Children’s doubts and skepticism are after all perfectly justified (after all, the very fact that they’re still called “Children” while they’re 20 years old or more is indicative of how little responsibility and agency are recognized to them). On the other, there’s Ravna, who I absolutely loathed here. Her character is supposed to be the one of the scientist who has no clue about how to communicate properly with other people and thus gets sidelined by the smooth talking villain in the game of politics. But this is apologetic self-indulgence – as a scientist, I came to realize that being smart and knowing stuff mean nothing if you’re not able to communicate, and interact, and work together with other people. Because you’ll never accomplish anything just on your own anyway, no matter how good you are – even Einstein needed his wife to help him out with the math! Ravna is, as such, a bad scientist, and she’s conducting the whole research program in an awful way. Whenever she doesn’t know what to do, she relies on a computer (that probably says bullcrap anyway, what with this being the Slow Zone and all) and she doesn’t spend a moment of her time thinking how she could instead try to empathize with her fellow humans and find a compromise between her worries and theirs. The whole obsession on not pursuing biomedical research is plainly idiotic – as if doing biomedical research in a medieval setting wouldn’t require a whole host of subsidiary technologies that would push the overall development forward anyway. I was sorely disappointed by this – all the insight that Vinge had shown in his previous novels seems to be absolutely gone in this mess.


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