Tor, 2011, approx. 219,000 words
After nearly twenty years, Vernor Vinge has produced an enthralling sequel to his memorable bestselling novel A Fire Upon the Deep.
Ten years have passed on Tines World, where Ravna Bergnsdot and a number of human children ended up after a disaster that nearly obliterated humankind throughout the galaxy. Ravna and the pack animals for which the planet is named have survived a war, and Ravna has saved more than one hundred children who were in cold-sleep aboard the vessel that brought them.
While there is peace among the Tines, there are those among them—and among the humans—who seek power… and no matter the cost, these malcontents are determined to overturn the fledgling civilization that has taken root since the humans landed.
On a world of fascinating wonders and terrifying dangers, Vernor Vinge has created a powerful novel of adventure and discovery that will entrance the many readers of A Fire Upon the Deep. Filled with the inventiveness, excitement, and human drama that have become hallmarks of his work, this new novel is sure to become another great milestone in Vinge’s already stellar career
Warning: Spoilers for A Fire Upon the Deep, though none for this book.
Vernor Vinge is now unquestionably one of my favorite SF authors. The three novels of his "Zones of Thought" series straddle the line between hard SF and space opera, a line also walked by the likes of Alastair Reynolds, but Reynolds is more of a techy-tech and hard physics guy, while Vinge leans more towards drama and characterization, though he does like his tech too. The physics in Vinge's universe require a little more suspension of disbelief: the laws change depending on which part of the galaxy you are in. Down where humans evolved, in the Slow Zone, nothing can exceed the speed of light, and technologies such as artificial intelligence and nano-manufacturing are accordingly limited. Farther out are increasingly advanced Zones where the speed of light is no longer a restriction and machines that are physically impossible in the universe we know become commonplace.
You can read either of the previous two books independently of one another: A Fire Upon the Deep takes place in the same universe as A Deepness in the Sky, but thousands of years later, and there are only minor references to the first book. The Children of the Sky, however, is a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, so I recommend reading AFUtD first.
The Children of the Sky takes place ten years after the end of A Fire Upon the Deep. The Children, human survivors of the crash of the original Straumers' vessel from the High Beyond, are now reaching adulthood. They have spent the past ten years on the pre-industrial world of the Tines, a race of dog-like creatures who individually are barely sapient, but who combine into packs of four or more "singletons" that collectively become increasingly smart and develop composite personalities.
In Woodcarver's kingdom, Ravna, who led the rescue mission to the Tines' world in the last book, only to be stranded there herself with the Children, is trying to bootstrap the Tines into a spacefaring civilization. The Children want to hurry their friends into an advanced tech civilization so they can go home, and so they can get the medical technology they had in the High Beyond. Some of them are already feeling the effects of age, and resentment is growing over the fact that Ravna, who was an adult when she came to the Tines' world, is nearly unaging compared to the Tines and the Children, but she insists that industrial manufacturing is more important than medicine.
Ravna's reason for wanting to focus on machinery is that she believes the Blighter Fleet is still out there, and it's coming for them. While supposedly it's trapped 30 light years away in the Slow Zone, Ravna fears the Zones could shift again, and the decades or centuries they believe they have before the fleet arrives might be far less.
Meanwhile, not all of the Tines are pleased with the presence of these two-legged invaders on their world.
One of the things I like best about Vernor Vinge is that he writes even better aliens than David Brin, who is another favorite of mine. The Tines are fascinating and had to be hella hard to keep consistent, but Vinge has thoroughly worked out their physiology and psychology, so when we meet them, they are very plainly not human, but they are very obviously people. Given that the Tines are a species for whom a "person" is a given configuration of multiple pack members, and those configurations can change, there is plenty of room to explore all the different permutations of Tine society. Much of the plot of The Children of the Sky occurs when the characters go to the tropics and encounter the vast "choirs" that were alluded to in the previous book; instead of grouping into small "packs," the Tropicals form vast group-minds that are practically Lovecraftian from the viewpoint of the northern Tines.
Vinge's stories always involve a lot of scheming, and the Tines are natural Machiavellian schemers, as you'd expect from a race that is constantly a composite of multiple viewpoints. This makes everything much more interesting, because while the humans arrived in starships on a world whose technology and society is still medieval, the Tines are not a bunch of savages waiting for the humans to uplift them.
The Children of the Sky is a great book, but it's got a few flaws, which I'll get to in a moment. After finishing it, I was a bit surprised to look at its reviews and see that it's being rather widely panned by Vinge fans. A lot of people, like me, enjoyed it, but there are a whole lot of folks who found it disappointing. I think the main reason for the disappointment boils down to this: A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep were predominantly space operas. They both centered around rival human factions contesting over a relatively primitive world inhabited by aliens, but the backdrop was one of galactic civilization, with all the grand scope and super-advanced technology that implies. A Fire Upon the Deep ended with a galactic war and an apocalypse that destroyed entire interstellar civilizations
In contrast, The Children of the Sky is, for all practical purposes, a fantasy novel. The humans with their salvaged technology that only kind of works down in the Slow Zone may as well be wizards. The Tines are divided into warring kingdoms, and much of the plot involves overland treks, imprisonment in keeps and dungeons, and of course, adventures off the edge of the map and encounters with scary monsters.
So, people who were expecting starships and alien civilizations and godlike Powers and Singularity events like in the previous book instead got... one alien civilization, one grounded starship, and a bunch of medieval plotting.
I still found it enormously entertaining and well plotted (though in honesty, there were a few chapters that dragged a bit; even Vinge can't make Ye Olde Trek Through The Wilderness exciting). And the characters and the scheming carried the story all the way to the end. There were plenty of twists and surprises and old foes and new ones.
That said, besides perhaps being a let-down for those who wanted more of a space opera, this book is obviously the middle of a trilogy, even though as far as I know, Vinge hasn't announced another book in the works. The Blighter Fleet from last book is mentioned, and it hangs over the entire book like the Sword of Damocles, but it remains only an ominous threat without a resolution. One of the chief villains in the book basically... gets away with everything, and sets up a rival faction which is sure to be an ongoing problem. So the ending is somewhat less than satisfying, especially when you realize that Vinge took twenty years to write this sequel! Look, all you Game of Thrones whiners, compared to Vernor Vinge, George R. R. Martin is Stephen King-prolific!
Lastly, about that villain: I did not get him, at all. He had an agenda, he had a plan, but he went far beyond merely pursuing his ambitions, into over-the-top villainy that seemed to serve no real purpose. Given his background and his motivations, it was hard to understand why he was so evil, and Vinge never provides any insight into his character. He's almost a mustache-twirling caricature. Most of Vinge's characters, alien and human, are very real and three-dimensional, so the fact that he just dropped a treacherous scheming bastard into the story for no apparent purpose other than to make bad things happen was perplexing.
Despite those flaws, which makes The Children of the Sky the weakest of the Zones of Thought books to date, it's still a damn good story, and I will wait eagerly for the next one. Even if it takes twenty years.
Verdict: The Children of the Sky is not quite as brilliant as its predecessors, but it is still a fine story from one of my favorite SF authors. If you aren't already a Vinge fan, you should start with the first two Zones of Thought books, and you will become one. This book is a must-read for anyone who's read the first two.
Also by Vernor Vinge: My reviews of A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.
My complete list of book reviews.