Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Vernor Vinge - The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge's Hugo award winning A Fire Upon the Deep stands as one of my absolute favorite works of Science Fiction, an exquisite blend of big ideas and fast paced adventure. The novel's themes and protagonist, if not the rest of its setting, received further exploration in its prequel, the (once again) Hugo winning A Deepness in the Sky. I had problems with the plot and pacing of that novel, but it was still a fascinating and well crafted book. The Children of the Sky, though, is, at long last, a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep that promised to continue the story past the cataclysmic events that ended that masterwork and to resolve what was probably best left unresolved. As you may have guessed from that last sentence, The Children of the Sky does not live up to its predecessors in either scope or execution.

We begin with Ravna and the children rescued from the Blight, who were stranded on a medieval world and are now waking from coldsleep. The Blight fleet that was pursuing them is still coming, but, due to their victory at that novel's end, will not arrive for centuries. By the time it does, Ravna knows that they must, using the information stored on their crashed ship (the Out of Band II)'s archives, advance to its technological level. But that's not quite as easy to do as it is to say, and there are problems along the way.

The vast majority of the novel is taken up by worldly political squabbling. The world is populated by the Tines, Vinge's fantastic group-minded and dog-like alien creation, but the Tines are not a homogenous whole. As if navigating the alien factions wasn't tricky enough, the humans, too, are splitting down the middle. The children, you see, quite literally slept through the events of the last novel. They don't feel the same terror that Ravna does at the thought of the Blight fleet. In fact, they aren't even sure if they believe Ravna's story. Their parents, after all, were the ones who unleashed the Blight, and they know that their parents were neither stupid nor evil. The faction that calls itself the Disaster Study Group reasons that, perhaps, the Blight was not evil but good and that Ravna and her ally Pham Nuwen were not heroes in stopping it but the perpetrators of a calamity on the scale of an interstellar genocide.

Like its predecessors, The Children of the Sky attempts to fill itself with numerous big ideas; alas, none  quite succeed. We get a few further insights into Tinish culture, particularly on the formation of packs and even on Tinish romance fiction. Those are all interesting, but none of it really rises beyond adding frills to their establishment in A Fire Upon the Deep. The one piece of new and Tinish ground treaded is that of the tropics, where innumerable Tines have merged together into a single massive whole. One of the choir's emissaries says: the Choir as a whole may not have what you call intelligence, but it is a happier way to know reality than is your stunted existence (p. 324). But we never delve deeper than that, never get more than vague hints and a few glimpses of how the choir really functions.

Like Tinish culture, the idea of recreating a star faring civilization from medieval routes is here on a far larger scale than it was previously but still adds little. In addition to Ravna's focused path, the inventor and businessman Tycoon begins what is called an industrial revolution in a far away land. Unfortunately, all of that stays in that far away land until the novel's ending. These developments should be beyond game changing for the Tines. Early on, one of Tycoon's associates admits that: Tycoon has lots of stupid ideas, including the notion of getting power by selling things (p. 53). That raises a fantastically interesting point, no? But we never return to it, never get to see how a Robber Baron might establish and conduct himself in the dark ages. Instead of focusing on massive societal changes, we see a bare handful of inventions and how they play into the bickering of the familiar factions.

Furthermore, one of the main ones of those factions, the Disaster Study Group, proves perpetually obnoxious to read about. I'll let them explain their foundation: The DSG starts from the position that we can't know exactly what happened at the High Lab and how we managed to escape (p. 77). To this, Ravna responds: When these deniers say 'we can't really know,' that is a lie. I know (p. 78). Nonetheless, the deniers, perhaps, have a credible reason for not trusting her. But Ravna is not the only one that knows what happened; the reader knows too. As a result of that, and as a result of how there is no new evidence or debate but simply two positions shouted at one another, the reader soon just grows annoyed at the deniers and wishes they'd finally find out so the novel could move on. It never does.

In the absence of big ideas, The Children of the Sky becomes a shallow thriller, and I doubt you'll be surprised when I add in that its plot isn't all that great either. The main problem with it is simply that it is long and bloated, something that is made a thousand times worse by virtue of the fact that it is almost perfectly predictable; my only incorrect assumptions were my continued hopes that the Blight's fleet would ever arrive, that the industrial revolution would take center stage, or that something  interesting would happen. At one point, Ravna is kidnapped. She and a few allies escape, but they are lost in the middle of nowhere. To survive, they decide (for some unfathomable reason) to be travelling performers. The section, like many of the novel's better ones, is effective but silly. Afterwards, they are recaptured again and, after that brief digression of roughly seventy-four pages, we go back to exactly where we were heading and Ravna is brought, captive, to the kidnappers' employers.

But the novel's real problem is character. There are multiple villains here, but every single one of them is of the moustache twirling variety. To give a small example, we learn that one of them always enjoyed (p. 369) throwing prisoners out of its air ship. The narration itself calls characters villains, every character in the book can agree without a doubt that they are evil (p. 231), and the debate is not on the issues or on the people themselves but rather on who is villain-in-chief (p. 304). To be fair, not every villain is simple, at least insofar as the word implies a lack of complexity. Some are idiots. Take this exchange between two of Ravna's captors as they stand over her:

"So you've told her about the radio link to the orbiter?"

"No, but you've done that now."

"…Oh." Gannon thought about that for a second and then laughed. "Like you said, it doesn't matter what she knows now." (p. 216)

It's not just the villains that are one dimensional. The main characters each have one or two dominant traits or interests, and that is all they are. The deniers may be wrong about the Blight's intentions, but they are right on the money when they say that Ravna is so obsessed with the threat that she cares about nothing else. More than it's a matter of goals, the problem is that Vinge's characters don't seem to have emotional lives. Johanna is betrayed by her fiancé, and we see her express anger, but the reader can't, despite their best effort, feel all that shocked by it. We don’t see a single scene of the two together, and we saw no affection for him in her thoughts even before the betrayal; the text would be fundamentally unchanged if we heard that the two were mortal enemies from birth on.

The characters' shallowness – and every one of the novel's other problems – is exacerbated by the prose. In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge wrote in a childlike tone when writing from a child's perspective, and, the rest of the time, wrote with a generally easy air filled with clever turns of phrase. Those are, very occasionally, visible here; Tinish group minds and their merging, for instance, can bring literal truth to the idea of a rumor having a life of its own. But it's not enough to save the mess that we've got.

Only one of The Children of the Sky's viewpoints is particularly young, and the vast majority of it is told from Ravna's perspective, which is to say that of a woman many decades into this whole living business. Yet she and every other character (the narrator most certainly included) talk like overexcited preteens. Devious aliens tell themselves to Be cool (p. 53). A human's Tinish companions are known as their Best Friend (p. 79). A supposedly clever human manipulator visibly reminds himself that the Tines are seriously not human (p. 127). The Out of Band II (or OoBII) is here always referred to as Oobii (p. 82). World leaders are described as geeky (p. 412).The occasional bit of not so surprising dialogue is followed by breathless interjections like: That was Jefri! (p. 419) Dialogue and narration are constantly interrupted by shouts of Hei! (p. 63), perhaps used as a preventative measure to drag back one's flagging attention.

If I was slightly more inclined to play the game of coincidences and portents, I might point out how this is the first volume of the series to not include the word deep in its title and how, no doubt as a direct result of that, it is the first to not be, in any sense of the word, deep. Whatever the fate of that conjecture, The Children of the Sky is nowhere near the level of either of its predecessors. Stripped of the overawing backing of one of Vinge's mammoth ideas, the plot and characters here are revealed as shallower than skin, and that's not at all helped by the author's juvenile diction. Even removed from the comparison to Vinge's other works, this is simply not a good book.

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