Volume 29, Number 4, Summer 2011

Children of the Sky

By Vernor Vinge

Tor Books, 2011
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Vernor Vinge won his first Hugo award in 1993 for A Fire upon the Deep, a novel that combined the sweeping action of space opera with the sophisticated speculative ideas of hard science fiction, in the style now called “new space opera.” In important ways, Vinge’s work was ancestral to much of the work of writers such as Ken MacLeod and Charles Stross. It also marked Vinge’s emergence as a creator of alien intelligences and cultures in the manner of such earlier writers as Poul Anderson and Hal Clement, with his portrayal of the Skroderiders and especially of the Tines, an ingeniously designed species of group mentalities.

Nearly two decades later, The Children of the Sky returns to the world of the Tines, and to the humans cast away there by the galactic catastrophe of A Fire upon the Deep. That catastrophe remains in the background, as a potential source of further threats, and many of the key characters are motivated by their understanding of it. But the focus of The Children of the Sky is almost entirely on events on its single world. On one hand, it’s a further exploration of the nature of the Tines themselves, and of their efforts to create a technologically advanced society based on human library records. On the other, it’s an exploration of human generational politics. As the latter, it sometimes seems to be making little jokes about political and cultural clashes on present-day Earth, but that’s a very minor element in the story.

In a sense, this novel is akin to time travel novels such as [L. Sprague de Camp’s] Lest Darkness Fall and the [S. M. Stirling’s] Nantucket Island trilogy: It portrays the efforts of technologically advanced castaways to survive, sustain part of their advanced technology, and uplift the civilizations of a more primitive world. But the castaways come not from the future, but from the High Beyond, a spatial region where space operatic technologies such as FTL and true AI are possible. Much of their knowledge is inapplicable in the Slow Zone where the Tines now live. But parts of it create economic and political disequilibria—and, as a result, conflicts: are Tines equal partners or inferiors? Should human efforts focus on general technological advance or on improved medical care and life extension? How should the Tines create an industrial economy? Out of these conflicts emerge both political schemes and open violence.

A central theme of the novel is stated explicitly at the start of Chapter 14, where the human protagonist, Ravna Bergsndot, reflects on her efforts to regain the leadership she has lost to a younger man—for whom one of the “Children” the novel is named—through “sneakiness.” She contrasts the positive-sum expectations of the High Beyond, where “sneakiness” means driving the best bargain possible by knowing customers well, and the negative-sum expectations of bad parts of the Slow Zone, where “only a saint could believe in return business, and all advancement depended on diminishing others.” She concludes that a middle ground is called for, based on nonviolent maneuvering and politics. The plot soon takes a long detour into negative-sum games—but in the end, Ravna’s preference for mutually profitable exchange over coercion pays off, and leads to some unexpected alliances.

In other words, the spirit of Vinge’s story is that of a comedy, which ends not with deaths (though there are some!) but with reconciliations and revelations. Its victories are attained not by overwhelming force but by clever trickery. It also gives an important role to a Tine singleton, as a kind of Shakespearean fool. And a number of scenes are quite funny in a more ordinary sense, from a mixed party of humans and Tines pretending to be a travelling circus to a Tinish mathematical genius discussing his species’ romance novels, and then going on to attempted matchmaking for two of his human friends. In fact, part of the ending involves the emergence of new romantic relationships, some expected and some surprising.

Despite this frequent lightness of tone, The Children of the Sky has some serious and even grim events, and some substantial speculative themes. Its outlook is clearly libertarian, informed by sympathy for voluntary trade and by reluctance to turn to force. And above all, it gives us a fuller look at the Tines, one of Vinge’s most imaginative creations. I think any member of the Libertarian Futurist Society will find it well worth reading.

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