The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
This is going to be interesting. You see, I won a prize pack from Tor.com that included A Fire Upon the Deep (a copy of which I already had) and The Children of the Sky. Naturally, I read them in order, but The Children of the Sky was an ARC, and I always try and put up reviews for ARCs the day before they’re released. So, yes, I’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep, but that review will go up at the beginning of November. Naturally, as this is a review for the sequel, there will be spoilers for A Fire Upon the Deep below. Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the actual review.
The Children of the Sky picks up years after the Battle of Starship Hill, the fateful climax of A Fire Upon the Deep. The humans now stranded on Tines world—including the children of the disastrously curious Straumli Realm and Ravna Bergsndot, librarian turned den mother—may be the last colony of humans in the galaxy. As Ravna works around the clock to make sure that Tines world is ready for the Blight when it comes, be it in thirty or a thousand years, by trying to jumpstart technology in a medieval culture, the Children of the Sky are growing restless and questioning Ravna’s claims about their parents and the nature of the Blight itself. And even as these malcontents grow more vocal, a threat from the mindless Tropics begins to make itself known…
The best thing about The Children of the Sky is how organic it feels. This sequel has been in demand for almost twenty years; it would be tempting for any author, even one of Vinge’s caliber, to just lay something down. Instead, all the conflicts that compose the main plot come from simply thinking things through. How would people who were used to being geniuses in a high-tech civilization adjust to being forced to live in a medieval civilization? How would the introduction of accelerated technology affect a medieval civilization? Most interestingly, how does having a pack mind change your identity? The last was an issue explored in A Fire Upon the Deep, but The Children of the Sky plays with it more, introducing us to diverse packs, the problem of fragment packs, and their problematic treatment by whole packs. Vinge deftly picks up loose threads from the first book and uses them as if he’s planned this story from the beginning; in fact, he does the same thing at the end of the book. In lesser hands, this might feel like a cheap trick for a series, but Vinge makes it feel more like this is a living, breathing world that keeps on going, even if you’re not there. And for hard science fiction, that’s an accomplishment.
While A Fire Upon the Deep sprawled across the galaxy, The Children of the Sky is focused solely on Tines world. It’s an ensemble cast, of course, bouncing from viewpoint to viewpoint and allowing us to see that the Deniers—the human malcontents—do have a point, even though we’ve seen the devastation in A Fire Upon the Deep… or did we? (While anyone in their right mind would tell you to read A Fire Upon the Deep before picking up The Children of the Sky, reading this solo would still be a pleasurable experience—it still functions on its own as a novel, which is all I ask.) Like most of the good ensemble pieces I read, it’s hard to select one character to praise; they’re all well-rounded and interesting. The Children of the Sky is oriented mostly along two axises; Johanna and Ravna, two likable and very different women. For instance, Johanna never quite shakes her inability to see pack members as beings (whereas most Tines see them as body parts), which ultimately helps her, and Ravna is shaken from her single-minded focus on preventing the Blight as the human political situation erupts all around them. But I always love seeing things through the eyes of the Tines, seeing how a hive mind negotiates with itself, others, and its environment. We learn a little more about Tinish culture and religion here, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
In fact, I loved seeing Vinge expand upon the worldbuilding here; as I suspected in A Fire Upon the Deep, the humans stranded on Tines world are dark-skinned, and seeing the little ways that a truly matriarchal culture differs was fascinating. For instance, not only is Johanna expected to propose to her boyfriend, but we meet a family with a Wenda, Sr. and a Wenda, Jr. We learn a little bit more about the Skroderiders and a lot more about the Tropics, which were only touched upon in A Fire Upon the Deep. Ultimately, though, I truly appreciate how unobtrusively and organically Vinge creates his world. It’s hard to say everything I want to say about novels that cover this much ground, but rest assured that this is a worthy follow-up to A Fire Upon the Deep.
Bottom line: The Children of the Sky is a worthy follow-up to A Fire Upon the Deep—organic, human, and interesting, albeit smaller in scope. If you liked the first book in this series, it’s definitely worth checking out.
I won an advanced review copy from Tor.com.
The Children of the Sky will be released on October 11th—tomorrow!