Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vernor Vinge - The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge, The Children of the Sky, Tor, 2011.

This book is the long-awaited sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, published in 1992. I really enjoyed A Fire Upon the Deep, and another book set in the Zones of Thought series, A Deepness in the Sky, so I was looking forward to this sequel.

Since I don't consider it sufficient to say I was somewhat disappointed, I will have to explain why.

The book suffers from some of the typical problems of second books in series. In the first novel, much of the writer's attention is devoted to establishing the world and the characters, and to building up the plot. In a sequel, the characters and the world are already largely familiar, so there is less of the sense of wonder generated by getting to know a new setting and new people. The author has to develop and sometimes subvert what the readers already know about the characters and world.

I wonder whether at the time of writing A Fire Upon the Deep Vinge intended to write a sequel to it. The first book is self-standing and has a satisfactory conclusion. Of course, we can always wonder what happened next after a story ends. But the way the first book ended makes the sequel a very different sort of story with different pacing, tension, and tone. The fact that around twenty years passed between the publication of the two books may also pose a problem to readers.

Unlike the first book, with its many different sentient species, fast-paced space chases, and a sense of the vastness of inhabited space, The Children of the Sky takes place entirely on a largely pre-industrial planet, with the humans learning to coexist with the Tines, the sentient local species they encounter. The isolation they experience may mirror our own current experience on Earth, but they have knowledge of the extent of sentient life in the universe, and also of an approaching threat, which make their own existence both more important and more frustrating.

The story contains action, treachery, adventure, and development of our understanding of the Tines. For me, this species has always been one of the most interesting types of alien in fiction. They have bodies similar to long-necked dogs, and each individual is a collective or hive mind with typically four to six bodies, who can collaborate to use their mouths as fingers, thus solving one of the problems quadruped species would face, the lack of opposable thumbs. We now learn what can happen when a larger "pack" or individual splits into two people, and what happens to a single body surviving when the rest of the "pack" dies. However, relatively little of the story is told through a Tine viewpoint character.

The story explores a larger proportion of the planet, showing different regions and cultures. There is one surprise regarding another species, which wasn't actually surprising to me, or I expect to other readers of the first book.

One of the problems with the book was the description of long journeys, which felt slow, perhaps especially in comparison with the previous book. I understand that this reflects the experience of humans from an extremely advanced technology who are now trapped in a primitive culture. I can imagine all too easily how I would react if denied our current level of technology for the rest of my life. However, perhaps this was not the best way of portraying this to the readers.

I felt that the human characters were not easy to identify with, and some of them lacked the charm they had in the previous book. Obviously, some had grown from innocent children to cynical adults, and the new characters had motivations that were difficult to understand at first. Because many of the characters were unable to trust the people they were with, the conversations they had did not really show their inner thoughts and feeling very clearly.

There are clear indications that there will be a third book, and I hope it will resolve some of the mysteries raised in this volume, pick up the pace, and perhaps reach a conclusion as spectacular and satisfying as that of the first book. I hope it will not take so long this time!

I recommend this book to readers of the first volume, with some reservations and lowering of expectations, and perhaps those who have not read the first one would do better to wait for the third (concluding?) volume and see if it gets more positive reviews than the second before reading the whole series.

No comments: