The Children of the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312875626
Date: 11 October 2011 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Children of the Sky is Vernor Vinge's long awaited sequel to his groundbreaking space opera A Fire Upon the Deep. The earlier novel featured lots of travel between distant worlds, and a menace of galactic proportions. This time around, all the action takes place on a single, low-tech world, and the threat is more local, and so the novel lacks some of the wide-scale action of A Fire Upon the Deep. Much of the plot is concerned with politics and backstabbing more than with technological speculation. The plot as whole is less compelling, and many loose threads remain at the end. However, we do learn more about the fascinating alien Tines, and how their society functions, and we get a chance to reunite with some well-loved characters. While not as impressive as the original, this is definitely worth a read for fans of A Fire Upon the Deep.
A Fire Upon the Deep ended with a small band of humans, all but one of them children, who have been stranded on a pre-technological world inhabited by the alien Tines, a species whose individual members are barely smarter than animals, but who can combine into group minds of between four and eight individuals that are as intelligent as any human. As well as being stranded, the small human colony faces the danger of an approaching slower-than-light spacefleet of hostile enemies that is traveling towards the Tines' world, meaning that unless the Tines can be bootstrapped into a high-tech society over the next hundred or so years, the planet will be doomed. Children of the Sky follows the struggles of the small human colony to adapt to life among the Tines and to recreate a high-tech civilization form the ground up, using only a single damaged starship and a few surviving pieces of technology as tools. The novel also deals with the growing division amongst the humans, a division that may be more fatal than any external enemy.
Children of the Sky relies heavily upon familiarity with the characters and events of A Fire Upon the Deep, and you will not get much out of it unless you are familiar with the earlier book. In fact, if it has been a while since you last read A Fire Upon the Deep you may want to re-read it first; I found myself confused at times by the reappearance of characters from the first novel that I had forgotten.
My favorite part of this book was the chance to learn more about the Tines. Their peculiar group-mind identity gives space for all sorts of fascinating issues. Tines can live practically forever by replacing dead members with new ones; however, each such replacement alters the Tines personality in subtle ways, and over the years this can lead to dramatic changes. This is both a fascinating predicament in its own light, but also a compelling metaphor for human life, where the ties that bind us to our own past selves can fray and snap with time.
It is a treat to get to spend more time with the characters from A Fire Upon the Deep and see how they have turned out. Vinge's characterization and writing are as good as ever, and this truly feels like a continuation of the previous novel. However, the plot is a little saggy in places; it takes quite a while to build up momentum, and it never really develops the same sense of urgency as A Fire Upon the Deep. Also, the novel ends without resolving some of the main questions, meaning we have to wait yet longer for another sequel to find out what actually happens. Despite these issues, I still recommend this novel to fans of A Fire Upon the Deep, the chance to see how the story unfolds is worth the occasionally slow moving plot, and the world of the Tines is fascinating and deftly realized.