The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge is an ethically responsible citizen of the science fiction community. And so, having almost destroyed the genre, he’s subsequently done his best to rescue it.

What can I possibly mean by ascribing to Vinge — a well-known, well-liked, self-effacing, and award-winning author of many fine SF novels — this brutal assault upon the very field in which he so intelligently labors? Only this: Vinge has been a prime proponent of the notion of the Singularity, the postulated great leap in computing power and machine autonomy after which society would be radically transformed in a way unfathomable to our limited view. Some futurists argue that it’s just around the corner; others treat it as a purely hypothetical event. Vinge first crystallized and named the theory in an essay in Omni magazine all the way back in 1983, after which it was further popularized by such eminent authorities as Raymond Kurzweil. But Vinge remains pretty much Mr. Singularity, often being interviewed on the theme.

Embraced, repudiated and even satirized as “The Rapture of the Nerds,” the Singularity is a meme poised on the brink of general public awareness. This past April, for instance, The New York Times featured coverage of a Kurzweil speech on the topic. Just last month, blogger Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post felt confident of audience empathy when she posed the question: “What if my iPhone is sentient? What if I’m abusing it right now and when the Singularity happens in 2045 all the machines rise up and castigate me for being a harsh master?”

But how could such a concept — the ubiquitous triumph of cyber-gadgets, the very lifeblood of the SF imagination — paradoxically harm the field? In this large way: the Singularity erected an impenetrable Silicon Curtain across the future — perhaps even the very near-term future — beyond which science fiction’s tools were useless. SF’s main playground seemed suddenly closed to writers. How could a simple human author, however brainy, possibly hope to convey anything about what was, by definition, incomprehensible to mere mortals? Staging a dramatic story in such a magical venue (Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) looked impossible. If you believed in the likelihood of the Singularity, your hands were tied when it came to extrapolating beyond a certain limit.

True, various enclaves of SF remained open. The Singularity had little relevance to steampunk or backward time travel, to alien invasions or alternate dimensions, to bioengineering or dystopias. But the grand old Star Wars– and Star Trek-style scenarios — even think-tank portraits of the world a few decades hence — now sported all the realism of fairy tales.

After this initial blow, stunned authors began slowly to recover. Writers like Charles Stross, Rudy Rucker, and Karl Schroeder commenced to attempt to limn the Singularity and beyond, refusing to believe that SF was inadequate to the task. Nowadays, while the Singularity is still a controversial bogeyman, it no longer frightens or limits writers as it initially did.

Part of this domestication of the savage Singularity is attributable to Vinge himself. In 1992 he published A Fire Upon the Deep, which was simultaneously a post-Singularity novel and a space opera in the old-school style. How did Vinge support this unlikely hybrid? He merely rejiggered the physics of the entire galaxy.

In Vinge’s book, our Milky Way galaxy is and always has been stratified into Zones. Some Zones support both faster-than-light travel and true machine intelligence. Some Zones disallow both. One Zone hosts godlike post-Singular minds, generally aloof and remote. The inhospitable core of the galaxy fails to support even human-grade thinking. With this setup, Vinge could have his SF cake and eat it, too. The ineffable Singularity was distinct from the human sphere yet interactive in ways that opened the door to grand new stories.

One thread of his tale concerned a malign godlike entity known as the Blight and its plan to swamp human space. Our two heroes, Pham Nuwen and Ravna Bergsndot, eventually stymied the Blight by engineering a kind of cosmic tsunami from a lesser Zone to enshroud and kill it. But by doing so, Pham died and Ravna was marooned on Tines World, home to a race of sentient doglike beings whose individuals cohered into group minds. For interspersed portions of Fire, readers had grown familiar with the intriguing Tines as they observed the activities of two human adolescents — Johanna and Jefri Olsndot — also castaways among the packs.

Revolutionary and satisfying as Vinge’s book was, it plainly called for a continuation. His next entry in the series, 1999’s A Deepness in the Sky, proved, however, to be a prequel, showing us Pham Nuwen’s adventures thousands of years prior to Fire. It sported a parallel structure to its predecessor, with human visitors to the mysterious OnOff Star marooned among aliens known as Spiders.

And now, almost twenty years after Fire, Vinge picks up Ravna’s plight with The Children of the Sky.

I will caution readers right from the outset: despite displaying immense cleverness and craft and heart, this is not the book we were all hoping for. Consequently, no matter how well done, it’s bound to be something of a disappointment. Why? Vinge has — temporarily, one hopes — abandoned his fascinating interstellar milieu to focus exclusively on Tines World.

Now, readers of A Fire Upon the Deep will recall that Vinge’s interstellar polity, forced to deal with many Zones and species and economic systems across vast distances, was modeled on…the internet of 1992! A kind of WikiGalaxy often called “the Net of a Million Lies.” This radical departure from fusty Empires and Federations was a groundbreaking vision. It recalled such sociological experiments as Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pockets like Grains of Sand and, I believe, even lit the path for such postmodern space operas as those of Alastair Reynolds and M. John Harrison.

Thus, a large portion of the anticipation surrounding Vinge’s new book was how he would sophisticate his depiction of the Net of a Million Lies based upon a subsequent two decades of real-world online experience. Galactic analogues to Facebook and Groupon? A race of sentient Tweets? Bring it on!

But such was not his chosen course. In a recent essay, “The Easier Part,” Vinge explains that he felt he left the most intriguing aspects of the Tines unexplored and wished to delve more deeply into their society and evolution and physiology and culture. And so we get the kind of planetary romance involving the uneasy alliance between aliens and humans most often associated with Poul Anderson.

Vinge prefaces A Deepness in the Sky, that prequel volume, with an acknowledgement of his debt to Poul Anderson and his works. Anderson patented a kind of Hard SF tale centered on planets of surprising astronomical composition and/or alien habitation, where human ingenuity and adaptability were tested to the max. Having gorged myself recently on Anderson’s seven-volume Technic Civilization Saga, I will affirm that Vinge does his mentor proud.

The story opens almost immediately upon the events of Fire. Ravna is stuck on Tines World as the only adult among a hundred or so child refugees. She has Tine friends but also Tine enemies. Her spaceship, the Oobii, has been dumbed down by the shifted spacetime substratum, which has also fortuitously stymied a ravenous fleet of the Blight some thirty light-years distant. But Ravna realizes that the currents of space might change unpredictably, putting the Blight only hours away. And so she goes to work with utmost urgency to build up Tine technology and to educate the human kids. Johanna and Jefri and some of the older kids are useful helpers.

Ten years pass. Many of the children are adults, and that’s where trouble begins. They’re sick of Ravna’s fairy tales about the Blight, and want different things. She loses control of the Oobii, is kidnapped by bad Tines, and has to undergo a dangerous quest to regain her stature and save her little colony, with anxious thoughts of the Blight in the background of her consciousness all the while.

Throughout this human saga, of course, the Tines are inextricably, gloriously woven. Vinge depicts them with all the love and insight that any author has ever lavished on an alien race. He never makes the mistake lesser writers commit: thinking that any nonhuman culture must be homogenous. There are shy and outgoing Tines, cowards and heroes, venal and noble ones. We learn of the surprising Tropical Choir, an agglomeration of thousands of dogs into a kind of being that the more “civilized” Tines deemed impossible. It’s a lesson in not underestimating the Other — a lesson that is all the more powerful for being embodied in a race that is Other to us! After a while, the reader starts to imagine the multi-unit Tine personages as true individuals — though Vinge is meticulous in subtly depicting how a single mind can be distributed across multiple entities. A stickler for scientific realism, Vinge rationalizes the Tines’ “telepathy” by modulated harmonics, not any kind of psychic mumbo-jumbo. This reliance of consciousness upon sound opens up the plot to many neat twists, too.

But as thrilling as all this action and speculation is, the reader is still going to feel an underlying itch for a broader canvas. This itch will manifest itself most vividly in chapter 24, almost exactly halfway through the book. The monitors on the Oobii show that the currents of spacetime have pulsed, and that Tines World is part of the faster-than-light realm again. The reader’s heart jumps! Out into the Galaxy we fly! But no, it’s not to be. The tide immediately ebbs, and we are again castaways with a sigh.

The Children of the Sky is, I think, clearly the middle volume of a trilogy, and it suffers from some of those fabled longueurs associated with such bridging installments. What I suspect Vinge is building toward is a breakout of the Tines from their isolated planet and into the interstellar setting where they will play an important part in the scheme of things. That’s going to be a hell of a grand tale, and we can only hope we won’t need to wait another twenty years for its unveiling. I’d hate for the Singularity to get here first.