Vernor Vinge's Children of the Sky: bootstrapping high-tech civilization from hive-mind Machiavellis

The Children of the Sky is the third novel in Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought cycle of novels, three brick-sized, Hugo-award winning novels that are the near-perfect balance of science fiction's twin traditions of wild speculation and high-intensity storytelling.

A summary of Children's plot: Imagine bootstrapping a fallen civilization into transcendance using nothing but a collection of hive-mind Machiavellis, a crippled hyperadvanced space-ship, and a pack of surly, scheming orphaned adolescents. Oh, and then there's the vengeful god ramscooping itself to relativistic speeds a mere 30 lightyears away.

That gives you an idea of just how far-out and far-ahead Vinge is thinking. The story revolves around the refugees from a crashed spaceship -- the children of a hubristic human colony that had edged up to the border of the galaxy's transcendent zone, where hyperadvanced beings can manipulate the very laws of physics. These Icaruses had hoped to raid the gods' archives and find a shortcut to their own godhood, but instead they woke a monster, one that chased them to a distant world and nearly killed them. But they were saved by a hero who twisted the laws of physics and sent the Blighter Fleet (as the monster was called) thirty lightyears away in the blink of an eye, and died in the process.

Ravna Bergsndot survived the armageddon, and it was she who woke the orphaned children from their coldsleep caskets, and, with them, set about rebuilding a civilization advanced enough to turn back the Blighter again, racing to bring her exile-world from medieval fiefdoms to physics-bending demigods in a mere century.

In this, the humans are aided by the Tines, a race of doglike hive-intelligences. Three or more Tines come together and form a collective consciousness, synchronizing with high-speed, ultrasonic chirps. A literal society of minds, the Tines are essentially immortal -- they need merely replace injured or killed individuals with new members. But the Tines are sorely limited in ways as well: if two Tines get to close to one another, their "mindsounds" will mingle, and their consciousness dissolve. Adding new Tines to a pack-individual can change its identity, sometimes creating new and unrecognizable packs.

Even with the Tines' ingenuity, Ravna's quest would be hopeless, except that she is able to avail herself of the libraries of the Out of Band II -- the crashed starship that brought them to the Tines' world -- and its endless archive recording other civilizations that had bootstrapped themselves out of similar situations. With the Oobii, this should be nothing more than a serious engineering challenge.

But even the children of near demigods are not immune to human frailty and scheming. And the Tines are hardly universally benevolent. What starts out as a fascinating thought-exercise in how you could combine knowledge, computation and raw materials to make an advanced civilization out of stone-age conditions quickly turns into a fabulous novel of intrigue and politics, as crosses, double-crosses and triple-crosses pit Tines and humans against one another in a quest for power, dominance, and vengeance.

Vinge's explosive imagination and deft storytelling make epics zip past like hummingbirds -- you'll steal daytime moments to read more, and lie awake at night contemplating what you've read. Vinge is best known for the mind-bending ideas that his science fiction delivers like a warhead (he came up with the notion of the "Singularity," among other things), but the missile is as well-engineered as its payload: Children is an adventure story with teeth, mindbending technical speculation blended with graceful storytelling.

This is the third (and not the concluding) volume in the cycle. The first two are A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Theoretically, you could follow Children's plot well enough without the benefit of the first two, but they are such treats themselves, you'd be depriving yourself if you did.

The Children of the Sky


  1. Nice review I’m definately interested. Sounds like a vaguely similar style to Peter F Hamiltons commonwealth and void sagas which I loved. Would this be correct anyone who has read both?

    1. It’s not. Where Hamilton is a very enjoyable sledgehammer of cool stuff, Vinge is more like a scalpel of outlandish, but somehow logical and VERY interesting ideas.

      Both are great, though.

      So go, get the books, what are you waiting for? ^^

    2. Hamilton is more consistently, irrepressibly technophile.  Vinge flies higher and delves deeper.  But there are certainly similarities.

      FWIW I can’t completely endorse “Fire Upon The Deep” — having bought the premise of a far-flung future society, I got lost trying to adapt to the lives of medieval group-mind dogs with their very alien mindset.  

      But if you liked The Reality Disfunction, and coped with the long LaLonde sequence (again, it lost me: like putting The African Queen inside The Maltese Falcon) then you’ll just love Vinge.

  2. I’m very fond of the first two.  Time to re-read them before jumping into the new one.

    -abs REALLY liked “A Fire Upon the Deep”

  3. he may have read a portion of one of the other stories at Readercon two years back.  I was amazed.  The cat is down into some next-level shit.  I will have to get these.

  4. I’m looking forward to reading this 3rd book.  SO GLAD that the story continues beyond the third volume, too.  

  5. I read a Deepness in the Sky and had no idea it was a sequel. Looks like I have some ordering to do.

  6. If this is half the book that Fire or Deepness were then it’s worth reading.  Vinge has had one or two novels that didn’t appeal to me but most everything he writes is gold.

  7. A Deepness In The Sky is a prequel to A Fire Upon The Deep, and it’s only a prequel in a very, very loose sense. The books share one character and are ostensibly set in the same universe. But the character is afflicted with amnesia in one book, and only remembers the character from the other book as if it was a dream. And one of the properties of the universe is that physical laws vary from location to location. It’s a fascinating idea that’s important to the plot of A Fire Upon The Deep, but its inclusion in the prequel is superficial.

    I enjoyed both those books, and I’m interested in reading this new one, but on reflection, the decision to link them into a “cycle” (whatever the hell that means) seems to be strictly a marketing one. They do not form a single story.

  8. Don’t forget the first “zones of thought” novel — “The Outcasts of Heaven Belt” by Vernor Vinge’s then-wife, Joan Vinge.

    Vernor had no time then to write fiction, and I was between stories,fretting about what to write next. One evening he dropped a ream-sizedpile of notes in front of me, and said, “Why don’t you write this?”

    “This” was his immense store of notes and plot ideas for the book thatwould become The Outcasts of Heaven Belt. We discussed the story at length(including how to tell time in seconds—a concept that, before I started,I found far less instinctive than he did), and I wrote the rough draft. Hecritiqued it (he’s an excellent editor, as well as an excellent writer),and I worked on it some more, until we were in agreement on everything, except one scene. He insisted that I remove it. I did, reluctantly, andsent out the manuscript. Several publishers turned it down.


    What neither of us realized at the time was that Outcasts . . . wasactually an event taking place in a “backwater swirl” of a vast futurehistory Vernor had yet to really envision, one which he would someday call”The Zones of Thought”, the setting for his Hugo-winning novels A Fire Uponthe Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.

    1. In my opinion yes it would, however I would recommend reading the first two novels first. They are also great reads and will provide some nice context for this novel.

    2. it would probably depend on the sophistication of the young teens in question. A Fire Upon the Deep’s has two main characters that are young kids themselves….one a young boy, and his sister a young teen. much of the story comes from their perspectives, and my guess is that young teens would enjoy that.
      However, there is a fair bit of the story that comes from other older characters, and much of that is fairly advanced reading.
      These books shouldn’t be looked at as something along the lines of a heinlein juvenile book (and if you’re looking for sci-fi books for young teens, THOSE would be among my first recommendations.)
      The Zones of thought books are incredibly long and detailed and might possibly be a bit advanced for most young teens.
      I’d suggest heinlein’s ‘tunnel in the sky’ or ‘citizen of the galaxy’ or ‘the rolling stones’

    3. Not sure about this one, although “a pack of surly, scheming orphaned adolescents” makes it virtually certain that it is. A Fire upon the Deep has 11- and 14-year-old protagonists, and is without a doubt a brilliant introduction to hard sci-fi for young teens. A Deepness in the Sky also has teen-aged characters, and a swashbuckling hero that I can’t imagine would not appeal to teenagers. I’d recommended starting your teens with A Fire Upon the Deep, since it’s main subplot is populated by teenaged heros.

      I’ve only just discovered Verner Vinge, having just finished both Fire upon the Deepness, and A Deepness in the Sky. Immensely satisfying. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who’s writing better hard sci-fi these days. And I’m thrilled beyond words to see a sequel to the series.

  9. To reinforce Lagged2Death’s point: Deepness takes place in the same future as Fire and Children but far, far removed–it’s set, as far as I could tell, tens of thousands of years earlier and in a completely different part of the galaxy, with no direct plot connection to the other books beyond a single character. Fire and Children, on the other hand, are part of the same story-line, with a number of characters and plot issues in common.

  10. I totally loved the first book, and really liked the second.

    I read AFUTD when I was thoroughly dis-enchanted with mainstream SF. I was still reading Sterling and Gibson, but I had the hardest time “going back” to space opera-ish settings. But like Startide Rising had done for me about 20 years earlier, AFUTD rekindled my Senseowonder.

    Hmmmm. Maybe . . . . I think this one will be the first eBook I buy. Assuming Grocery Outlet still has those Literati tablets on closeout.

  11. Love it! Absolutely love it.
    Flenser Tyrathect actually ‘shoo’s’ Ravna away at the end of a clandestine metting in a snowy alley.
    There are wonderful scenes in here… I acually laughed and cried out loud at points in the tale.
    The overall story heads in directions I could never have anticipated… I can’t recommend this tale of Tines, humans (and others!) enough.
    Read it… then read it again :)

  12. I was betting that this was going to be named “A Sky on Fire”. In any case, I’ve been waiting for it for a long time, and delighted that it’s here.

  13. Cory writes:
    The Children of the Skyis the third novel in Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought cycle of novels, three brick-sized, Hugo-award winning novels…

    Contradicting Cory, just to be polite: Two brick-sized, Hugo-award winning novels, and one brand-new sequel, which has not won a Hugo.  (Yet.)

    Perhaps Cory has access to the outcome of the 2012 Hugo balloting?  Don’t tell the Time Patrol…

  14. ohmigoshohmigoshomigoshomigosh :fanboysqueal:

    I loved both books.
    [Spoiler to A Fire Upon The Deep]
    After I read AFUTD I emailed Professor Vinge to express appreciation for the re-partitioning of the galaxy and the newsfeed-like messages between the chapters. He replied back that the editors stripped out a lot more of the geeky stuff :(

    1. He replied back that the editors stripped out a lot more of the geeky stuff :(

      squeee! My favorite bits, too! I wonder if we’ll ever see a “director’s cut” like “The Stand” or “Stranger in a Strange Land” or “BladeRunner” or “Apocalypse Redux.”

      Hrm. Maybe best left well enough alone.

  15. AU: “if two Tines get TOO close to one another” . . . It was almost inevitable, with to/too/two, well, together in one sentence. –ed.

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