A while ago I reprinted my interview with Vernor Vinge that appeared in Bull Spec 7, Spring 2012. I promised then that I would reprint the review of Vinge’s novel that accompanied the interview. So here it is.
This is a space opera that never gets into space, a tale of first contact in which the two sides already know each other, a far future story that describes a world from the past. It is the sequel to an award-winning novel that is mostly spent setting up the situation for its own sequel. It is, in other words, a novel that delights and frustrates at the same time.
It would be wrong to call this a long-anticipated sequel, since A Fire Upon the Deep was complete unto itself, and for most of the 20 years since that book appeared we have neither expected a sequel nor believed one was really necessary. Yet now that a sequel has been sprung upon us, it not only seems right but leaves us expecting more in the series.
And this is a very direct sequel: it opens barely two years after the climactic events of the earlier novel. We are on Tines World, the planet of dog-like pack-individuals that became the last refuge of the handful of human survivors in the first novel, and on Tines World we remain. Although we are repeatedly encouraged to cast our eyes heavenwards, to note the approaching Blight, and to recognise that the borders of the Zones of Thought are shifting, and hence realise that Tines World may not remain long in the safety of the Slow Zone but find itself in immediate danger in the Beyond, we never actually face that threat. The danger in this novel is closer to home, and all too human in origin.
Ravna Bergnsdot, who rescued the 150 cryogenically-suspended children and brought them safely to Tines World, is now effectively co-monarch with Woodcarver. But despite Woodcarver’s enlightened rule, Tines World is at a more or less feudal level of political and economic development. Obsessed by the threat of the Blight, Ravna devotes herself to planning Tines World’s technological future, hothouse developments that she hopes will raise it to a level where it might present a credible opposition to the Blight. She is so single-minded about this that she is mystified when growing numbers of the now near-adult children reject her vision. Maybe the Blight is not the enemy she says it is, maybe it was the countermeasures that really deprived them of their families and their former lives. Ravna has no answer to this, and finds herself leaning more and more heavily upon Nevil, one of the more level-headed of the children and a natural leader. Then Nevil reveals his true colours, effectively deposing Ravna and installing himself as dictator.
As in any dictatorship, there are abuses of power. Some of the things that made life pleasant start to run down, authority is given to people purely on the basis of their loyalty to Nevil, acts of violence start to occur, the Tines start to be cast in the role of subhuman other. And then the disappearances begin. Eventually, Ravna herself is kidnapped; but she is lucky. Among her kidnappers is Jefri, who has maintained an ambiguous relationship with Nevil but now proves himself to be an ally of Ravna. Jefri, together with the Tine Amdi, engineers Ravna’s escape, and a considerable proportion of the novel is given over to their lengthy journey through the backwoods, making a living by putting on a kind of circus for Tines who have never seen humans before, and all the time trying to evade recapture by Nevil or by the outside forces that seem to be threatening Woodcarver’s realm.
Tines World has now gone from feudal realm to planned economy to dictatorship in little more than a handful of years. But there is yet another strand in this complex politico-economic picture. While Ravna’s society is falling apart, another is growing apace. The traitor Vendacious has joined up with a foreign businessman, known as Tycoon, and together they are building a commercial empire to rival Woodcarver. The heart of this empire lies in the tropics, where a combination of heat and overcrowding causes the normal Tine personality structure to break down. Previously, life in the tropics had been seen as a sort of madness, but Tycoon has found a way to harness these masses to his own ends. Inspired by Vendacious’s thirst for revenge, Tycoon allies himself with Nevil and works to undermine Woodcarver, but in the end it is his capitalism that saves the day.
The Children of the Sky is a dense and complex novel, my synopsis, of necessity, has to leave out several major characters and significant plot strands, but it is told with sustained vigour by Vernor Vinge. The various reversals and unravellings that make up the story are very well handled, and if there is something a little schematic in Nevil’s transformation from hero to comic book villain, to be followed by the parallel transformation of Tycoon from a shadowy Bond villain manqué into another hero, the story still maintains its grip. I find myself less than convinced by the way that old-fashioned capitalism makes everything come right in the end, but until that point I thoroughly enjoyed the workings out of the various intertwining plot lines. And Vinge has a way of killing off attractive characters and letting less attractive ones thrive that, within the context of the story, is strangely satisfying. Unfortunately, when you reach the final page, you realise that it is not the end, in fact the story has barely begun. A Fire Upon the Deep had no need for a sequel, but now we’ve got the sequel we realise that everything within the novel is directed towards setting up the next volume. There are too many questions unanswered, too many threads left dangling, for us not to look forward impatiently to what might come next.