February 04, 2012

Children of the Sky

Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge is one of my favorite science fiction books of all time. This book, Children of the Sky, is a much-awaited sequel that I just finished.

Unfortunately I didn't enjoy the majority of the book. This is mostly my own fault, because i broke my personal rule of not having high expectations--- I desperately wanted an amazing continuation of the amazing story, and I should have remembered the lesson of Greg Bear: the sequel is never as good.

So my purpose here is mainly to save you from Children of the Sky with some spoiler-free expectation-setting.

First, this book is about as direct a sequel as you can imagine. It's critical to have read Fire Upon the Deep, because the characters are all the same, and their histories with each other are important. (However, it's not important to have read "Deepness in the Sky", which is a fine book but irrelevant to this story.)

Second, you should know that the whole story takes place on the Tine's world. Don't expect to turn the page and find a chapter about some soaring ultradrive civilization in the Transcend. It doesn't happen.

Third, I am here to report to you that there's no grand ending: some of the story concludes, but large, important questions are still unresolved as the book ends. So if you go in (as I did) holding your breath for a total resolution, you will be disappointed. Hard to say more without spoilers!

Instead, the book is sort of about the characters and the politics of their little village. But it's mainly an exhaustive extrapolation of the Tines' physiology, society, and technology--- especially in contrast to humans. Vinge has thought most thoroughly about what it might be like for a super-advanced civilization to be marooned on a medieval planet. The degree of detail is fascinating, and is the best part of the book.

The narrative itself is mainly about politics, which was sometimes interesting but sometimes annoying to me. The main character, Ravna, is basically likable, but she has self-esteem issues which (to Vinge's credit) he captures in the voice of the writing. The result is probably honest ("how would a librarian fare in a world of violent, cut-throat politics") but also irritating ("grow a spine already, you stupid girl!") At the risk of being a slave to fashion, I found it grating to read a weak, gullible female main character.

Besides my complaints about plot and characters, the book has some flaws that sometimes made me want to give up on it. There is a 200 page arc where most of what happens is that committees are formed and have meetings. There's an entire chapter in which the only thing that happens is that a character prepares to give a PowerPoint presentation. There's 50 pages devoted to describing a circus act. I think Vinge meant to develop characters with these scenes, but I could have done without them.

The final 200 pages of the book were pretty exciting, but the rest was sometimes a slog. Overall I would cautiously recommend this book to Vinge fans who found the Tines creatures fascinating, and want to read about them for 600 more pages. But if you're like me and you're looking for a broader resolution to "Fire Upon the Deep", you'll have to keep waiting.

Posted by rus at February 4, 2012 03:22 PM
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