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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A Fire Upon the Deep

January 30, 2012 at 12:25 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments
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It’s by no means his first novel, but although in the end Vernor Vinge will probably be best remembered for coining the term Singularity, his reputation as a fiction author is founded on A Fire Upon the Deep, his first book in the Zones of Thought setting published twenty years ago in 1992.

Vinge posits a universe in which the physics of relativity vary according to one’s proximity to the galactic core. The Earth is in the “Slow Zone” where nothing moves faster than the speed of light, placing harsh limits on travel and computational complexity. In the “Unthinking Depths” even closer to the core, even computation of the sort performed by the human brain becomes impossible. But in the “Beyond” on the fringe of the galaxy, starships can cross between stars in days while weak AI, nanotechnology, and antigravity all become feasible. It’s only in the “Transcend” between galaxies, however, that the limits on computational complexity allow for the creation of the superintelligence discussed in Singularity theory. While the Beyond is home to many human and alien civilizations, the Transcend is an almost divine place, populated by, well, transcendent entities that are the creation or sometimes descendants of civilizations from the Beyond. It’s the realm of gods, alluring but extremely dangerous.

The story begins when a human civilization in the Beyond discover a long-forgotten ancient archive just across the border in the Transcend and end up accidentally releasing a malevolent superintelligence, a demon instead of a god. Whereas typical Transcend entities mostly ignore the Beyond and evolve so quickly they are gone in less than ten years, what the humans found is a “Blight” that is not only obsessed with dominating all life the Transcend and the Beyond, but one obsessed in a stable, long-lasting way.

From there the story plays out in two arenas. A single family, the lone survivors of the ill-fated investigators, flees the Blight down into the slower depths of the Beyond, almost into the Slow Zone, eventually crash landing on an uncharted planet populated by aliens with only medieval technology. Meanwhile, in the middle Beyond, a human librarian named Ravna teams up with two plantlike aliens and Pham Nuwen, a human who is some sort of reconstruction of a Slow Zone interstellar trader, on a desperate mission to recover the crashed ship in hopes that their escape preserved some weapon the embattled civilizations of the Beyond can use against the seemingly unstoppable Blight.

One might think that the story taking place on the backwater alien world would be dull compared to the epic space opera of the story’s other strand, but in fact this turns out to be the more interesting of the two. The aliens, eventually called Tines, are pack intelligences whose single mind is comprised of several individuals whose thoughts are linked by constant sonic communication. Although psychologically the Tines are similar to humans in desires and motivations, this difference in their nature has a number of interesting effects that make them seem convincingly alien no matter how familiar their thoughts might be. For example, two packs can’t come closer than a few meters to each other before the crosstalk of their thoughts makes it hard for either to think, meaning Tines live in a sort of physical isolation, almost never drawing close to anyone else. More significantly, while individual members have limited lifespans, each overall pack can take in new members to replace those that die and thus can theoretically live forever, though each change in members alters pack’s personality to some degree. Traditional Tine societies have allowed this process to occur more or less at random, but the ship fleeing the Blight crashes near the frontier kingdom led by Woodcarver, who has spent centuries working toward a rational approach to self-improvement. Woodcarver’s rationalism makes her ready to accept the opportunity for technological change offered by the arrival of a starship, but perhaps even more ready are the followers of Flenser, her former student. Flenser, feeling that while Woodcarver had the right idea her ethics were slowing her down, created a society that worships mental discipline and cultivates it through the most ruthless of means. If his followers can control the starship’s technology, they’ll have the means to dominate their world.

I’ve spent more time than usual describing the novel’s setting because the setting is a lot more interesting than most. Both the Zones of Thought space civilization and the Tines’ pack psychology could easily serve as the foundation for an entire novel by themselves, so taken together they provide a formidable array of situations and ideas, formidable enough to carry a novel with mediocre characters and plot. And so it proves, for although Vinge’s writing in Fire Upon the Deep is much improved from his earlier week, it was the novel’s ideas that won it enough votes to tie for the 1992 Hugo for Best Novel.

That’s not to say the plot and the characters are bad, exactly. The book’s “good guys” are pleasant-enough company, with the exception of Pham Nuwen, who displays none of the charisma the narrative imputes to his character (and which Vinge would more convincingly render in 1999’s sort-of prequel Deepness in the Sky). Vinge takes his characters to interesting places, forcing them to try to work out who they can trust and how far while under the greatest possible stress, but their reactions to the unprecedented events of the narrative (the destruction of multiple stellar civilizations for the Beyonders, the arrival of aliens for the Tines) are often less than convincing. As for the plot, it’s a widescreen adventure yarn that’s a good deal less exhilarating than it ought to be due to some awkward pacing and an ending that needed some better setup to be truly satisfying. It’s a good novel, but its parts are greater than their sum.

One of these great parts is the principal antagonist, Lord Steel, who at first seems to be a laughably cardboard villain. Like a Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie, he’s willing to kill anyone who gets between him and the power offered by the crashed starship, and do it in the name of a poisonous ideology. Although the Flenserist philosophy’s rejection of empathy and worship of cold-blooded rationality could have been used to satirize or otherwise comment on the excesses of techno-futurism, Vinge never seriously explores their ideas. Lord Steel is just a Bad Guy, the sort of Bad Guy who is fully aware and totally comfortable with the fact he is a Bad Guy, which is disappointing and fairly boring.

Except Vinge takes boring Lord Steel and throughout the novel puts him in situations that force him to play against type. Lord Steel wants nothing more out of life than to be the boring Bad Guy, but the only way he can harness the power of offworld technology for world domination is by convincing a young human boy he’s actually a good guy. Rather than twirling his metaphorical mustache, he has to endure hugs and act as a surrogate parent for both the human boy and a young Tine. Worst of all, he has to do this under the gaze of his feared master, Flenser…kind of. If Flenser was really present, he’d be in charge and Steel would be comfortable in the familiar role of chief minion, but Flenser is only kind of present. Trapped by traditionalist enemies before the novel began, Flenser took the radical step of breaking his six member pack into three pairs that were forced into three other packs. Avoiding detection, one of these packs, originally a schoolteacher named Tyrathect, returned to Flenser’s stronghold as the starship crashed. But the others did not survive, which means Lord Steel is still in charge, struggling to play the part of gentle father figure while someone who is two thirds schoolteacher and one third history’s greatest monster watches and critiques his performance.

The Lord Steel character is a fun element in what is overall a fun and idea-filled book, but I suspect readers who prefer character-driven narratives or stylish prose will find the novel unsatisfying. Judged on its ideas, it still stands out from the science fiction crowd, and (no doubt in part due to Vinge’s computer science background) has held up surprisingly well for a twenty-year old book. It’s been too long since I’ve read Deepness in the Sky to compare them, but Fire is easily the best of Vinge’s other novels, including the recent sequel, which will soon be reviewed in this space.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

June 2, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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I feel a little bad giving this book only three stars. Vinge has become a much better writer since he became famous (within the genre, at least) for Fire Upon the Deep. Unfortunately, where his previous two books were hugely fun space opera romps, Rainbows End is a decent but occasionally plodding story with an overcomplicated plot and undercomplicated characters. Vinge has never been a master of characterization, but in his Zones of Thought books that wasn’t a big problem since the plot and world were so engaging. In Rainbows End, Vinge is more interested in touring his ideas about the future than making sure the story functions properly, so the plot never really adds up to anything half as impressive as Vinge is capable of. Meanwhile, the tour itself seems woefully incomplete. For someone who has always thought big in his fiction, Vinge is strangely parochial here, confining almost all the narrative to San Diego State University and the nearby community. Those familiar with Vinge’s biography will know that he taught there for many years, and indeed this is the only real reason for its extremely prominent presence in the book.

Nevertheless, there are surprisingly few near-future science fiction novels these days so Rainbows End will likely be fairly influential, and in truth it does have a few moments of real poetry (the aside about the title, for example) and humor (the PDF). If you are interested in what life will look like with ubiquitous computing, you could do a lot worse. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t more.

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

July 3, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This book has every story short of novel length Vinge has published (well, had published when this book was published) except “True Names”. This last omission is understandable, since it has been frequently collected elsewhere, but also unfortunate, since by all accounts the essays it usually is bound up with aren’t that special. Also, “True Names” is better than anything in this collection by a considerable margin. That’s not to say this is a bad collection, and I should point out I really am not much of a short story person. I’ve read a few collections but with a few notable exceptions short fiction just doesn’t grab me the way novels do. By his own admission Vinge is more of a short story writer than a novelist, but unlike other authors so described his short fiction is not nearly good as the two novels he has written in the last twenty years. Vinge is a clever technologist and knowledgeable both about science and about science fiction, so he definitely has his moments. However, his character work is not any better here, and the short length doesn’t give him the chance to weave his invariably fascinating worlds around the reader. The settings of these short stories are almost all as engaging as his novels, but they are over before the reader can really get into them. Meanwhile, crude characters work through standard plots. It makes for a decent collection but nothing more. Vinge has brief notes preceding and following most of the stories, but they are mainly notable for his unflattering honesty about the quality of some of the stories.

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