It usually isn’t a good sign when science-fiction authors return with sequels to their greatest hits years after the fact. Isaac Asimov’s return to his Foundation and Robot books in the 1980s are perhaps the most depressing example, but there are also more recent disappointments, like Dan Simmons’ Endymion, the sequel to his classic Hyperion. So it’s not hard to be wary of Vernor Vinge’s Children Of The Sky, a brand-new direct sequel to his 1993 masterpiece A Fire Upon The Deep. Happily, Vinge avoids major problems, making Children Of The Sky less of a Phantom Menace and more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation.
After a catastrophe, it’s understandable to look for comforting explanations. The events of A Fire Upon The Deep certainly qualify: In order to stop the destruction of the galaxy, the heroes unleash a countermeasure that strands them on an alien, medieval-level world, while potentially sending much of the galaxy into a relative dark age, potentially killing trillions. Ravna Bergnsdot, hero of both novels, understands this and tries to explain it to her charges, 150 children and teenagers who may be the last surviving humans in the galaxy. But this explanation demands cognitive dissonance from the children, who would have to believe that their parents triggered the galactic crisis called “the Blight,” that they were stranded on a world without the technology they’d grown up with, and that the remnants of the Blighter threat were bearing down upon them.
In spite of a slow start that doesn’t fully explain the events of the previous book, Vinge deftly uses the premise and setting to portray a riveting story of post-crisis betrayal and desperate grabs for power, as Ravna realizes far too late that her status as the only adult at landing and the only person who knows what happened before doesn’t make her immune to political machinations and adolescent rebellions. Events spiral out of the control of every major character, turning the bulk of the book into a breathless combination of survival and conspiracy.
Vinge’s grasp of social psychology and organizational infighting are strong enough to make the book good, but what makes it stand out, much like its predecessor, is the characterization of the Tines, the intelligent aliens who work with and against the humans. These symbiotic, multi-individual packs have their complex nature integrated as part of the whole story, with changes in behavior due to new pack members and revelations about the nature of individual Tines driving the plot as much as the book’s political aspect. This commitment to the world and its characters makes a book that might otherwise seem unnecessary into a worthy successor, although an ending that leaves the door wide open for more sequels may mean Vinge is pushing his luck.