The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Well, here we go with my incipient Alzheimer’s again. As you no doubt tire of my reminding you, I am of an ancient vintage and remember reading Golden Age books like The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein shortly after it came out in the 1950s. Not that I was then a “juvenile” (although I was increasingly delinquent) but I just read science fiction regardless of the label. For those who have not met this early Heinlein, it’s about a boy and his strange pet. Well, now we come forward to 2011 and The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge (TOR). Let’s try to capture a sense of what this book is about in two sentences: “This group of kids has been isolated on a planet where they find a mediaeval culture formed by packs of telepathic doggy creatures. To defend all from an external threat, the local aliens have to be uplifted into a technological age except their politics gets in the way.” Frankly, I thought I had escaped juvenile or, as it is now dignified, YA fiction, but the ageing Vernor Vinge is obviously entering his second childhood and wants to share the experience with us.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is unreadable as prose. I struggled to finish it, but if you can look beyond the leaden sentences and flat dialogue, and find the ideas sufficiently interesting, you might be drawn through to the end with minimal effort. But, frankly, the use of language is embarrassingly bad and, to my jaded mind, many of the ideas explored are offensive. As an example, let’s take the first major action sequence of the book. One of the problems of the world as we have it today is that a number of advanced societies act like beacons to the desperately poor who live in third world countries. This leads to the phenomenon of the boat people. Australia and other supposedly moral countries have blotted their reputations by failing to prevent thousands from dying as they try to sail to their shores. When the few survivors straggle onshore, they are promptly interned and often returned to the countries they came from. This emergent alien civilisation has a policy of killing as many immigrants as possible before they can land and then paying the few survivors to go on with their sea journey to find a more welcoming country, i.e. sending them off to die somewhere else. The human children are trying to improve matters by advocating internment (like that’s a real step forward). When one child fails to get her way, she shows the internees how to break out of the camp and lets them loose on the local population.
This is the worst of the American attitude to immigrants from Mexico and refugees from Cuba. Erect a fence to keep the people in the desert where they will die of thirst or hope the sea will kill those trying to sneak in from Cuba. In the border states, harass all people who look foreign and check their immigration status. Ship back any who don’t have the right documentation. Australia interns the boat people on Nauru where they are routinely abused and punished. The idea is for this imprisonment to act as a deterrent yet, when most of those interned on Nauru are eventually given refugee status, all it does is inflict misery as the price of admission. Well Vernor Vinge’s civilised aliens are not into welcoming refugees from the Topical Zone. Indeed, he finds every way of telling us the feckless individuals and loose groups which arrive by boat are like animals without a proper “brain” to share between them.
We have a similar debate with our humans advocating a policy of caring for older pack members whereas these primitive and godless aliens have a practical policy of death with dignity, killing off the older members who would slow down the pack and adding new blood to build strength. The elements are symptoms of a more general and painful ideology being thrust down the throats of these poor aliens. It’s being suggested that the only way they can survive the probable conflict with the Blighter Fleet is by becoming more American in the right-wing, libertarian, evangelical sense of the word. Except, of course, the aliens don’t know or understand the external threat. Indeed, the children themselves are not completely convinced the threat is real. After all, the ships are thirty light years away without a working FTL drive. So the actual way in which the children relate to their doggy aliens is like unaccountable Americans telling the primitive third-worlders what to do. This is not altruism in action to protect these poor creatures from extermination by the Blight. The humans are only interested in their own immediate well-being and see the aliens as a means to that end.
This is not to deny there are some interesting elements in the way the story develops. The implications of the Tropical Choir, for example, would be worth exploring in more detail but, overall, The Children of the Sky remains a hard grind. So, as the third in this remarkably spread-out series, we’re left with A Fire Upon the Deep which was and remains a wonderful book. You have to look back with affection because the rump of humanity is saved by a vegetable. Only joking, of course. But instead of waiting twenty years to write a sequel, Vernor Vinge should have left this epic in his head. Unless, that is, you’re an incurable fan of the man and will read everything he writes regardless.
For the record, The Children of the Sky was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.