Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book Review: The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge has written a few main novels set in the Zones of Thought universe. The main one, A Fire Upon the Deep, is highly regarded in the science fiction community. There is a prequel, A Deepness in the Sky, which I haven't read. The other main one, The Children of the Sky, is the one I just finished reading.

As a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, this book requires that you finish the prior one. This review will naturally contain spoilers for A Fire Upon the Deep, though I avoid ones for The Children of the Sky.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This book is a direct sequel to Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and so follows the same main set of characters a few years after that book. We get a much more limited scope by being set in just the Tines World and by only considering the relationships of Humans and Tines. The plot is decent, but feels a bit unfocused when compared to the grand conflict of the prior book. It's a fun read, but not as good as A Fire Upon the Deep.

This novel has a different feel to its predecessor. While the threat of the Blight is still there, it is much removed and instead we focus on interactions and conflicts between Tines and Humans and with each other. A lot of the plot revolves around the rapid development of technology in the Tines world, whether that is to improve human lives, prepare for the Blight, or conquer the world. As you may imagine, that sets up tension between different factions that want technology focused to their specific goals. The plot features lots of intrigue and political maneuvering with some action and a bit espionage thrown in.

The main characters in this novel are predominantly the ones introduced in the prior book. We have Woodcarver, Pilgrim, Flenser, Amdi, and other notable Tines; and among the humans (ie, the Children) we have Ravna, Johanna, Jefri, and others. There are some new characters, notably Tycoon, and some of the Children, like Nevil, have now grown up and take more prominent roles. The single most important character, however, is probably Ravna with her connection to the ship Out of Band II, commonly referred to as Oobii. Unfortunately, I expected Ravna to be better, particularly after everything that she went through in the prior novel, yet she starts of very weak and naive and as such seemingly causes all sorts of problems.

Setting / World Building
This novel takes place entirely in the Tines World down in the Slow Zone (see my review of A Fire Upon the Deep for explanation on the Zones of Thought). We do get to see different regions of the world, though most of the time is spent either in Woodcarver's Domain in the arctic regions or in the tropical region where Tycoon's enterprise is being set up.

We get to learn more about the unique nature of Tines. Tines are pack creatures similar to dogs. When a number of them, usually 4-8, are together they can form a group mind that gives the pack an identity and intelligence through sound. Singletons, or lone members, are usually disregarded as mindless and 2-3 member fragments are significantly less intelligent than a full pack. As such there is a drive to keep a pack together and within hearing range so their mind is complete. This novel introduces what goes on in the tropics and what a Choir is.

In the tropics, thousands of members live within each other creating a loud mindsound, the Choir. There is no individuality in the Choir as no pack can exist with so many members present. However, the Choir can be powerful and useful in their own special aspect, which become key aspects of the story. It's interesting to me to see how the novel explores this group mind idea and its implications.

Final Thoughts
Overall, this was a fun book but far less interesting or engaging as A Fire Upon the Deep. It's more a take on what would happen when two separate societies mix, one with high-technology, but no resources and the other the opposite. I got some vibes of Lord of the Flies from this since these are stranded people who eventually diverge in opinions and turn to in-fighting. The characters feel a bit forced and the plot, while interesting, feels so much smaller than its predecessor. There are a few hints as to what's happening beyond the planet, but these aren't followed up. I guess that opens the door to a sequel, but I fear that those hints are probably what most readers will be after if coming straight after A Fire Upon the Deep.

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