Jun 15 2019

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky is about as close to opposite of Just One Damned Thing After Another as it’s possible to be and still have both books inhabit the same genre. Deepness is big (774 pages in the mass market paperback edition that I have), full of carefully worked out ideas about space and science and technology and progress, plays faithfully within the known laws of physics with just a few exceptions, features aliens and at least two different kinds of humans, offers interplanetary battles, speculates about alternative economic arrangements, considers carefully what a slower-than-light interstellar collection of civilizations would be like, and much more. Deepness won the Hugo in 2000 for best novel.

It’s also a total slog.

Honestly, there was more life in the first forty pages of One Damned Thing than in the first four hundred of Deepness. I don’t know what happened; Deepness is set in the same Milky Way as A Fire Upon the Deep, which is terrific. Fire has at least as many nifty ideas, not least that our galaxy has several different zones in which the laws of physics behave differently. Out toward the edge, FTL travel, superintelligent AIs, and many other attributes of the technological singularity are not only possible, they occur with predictable regularity. Further in, none of these are possible; they are known to the characters of Deepness as the “Failed Dreams.” Fire has a memorable alien: a dog-like creature whose consciousness only arises in packs. They struck me as plausible, convincing, and truly different from human consciousness. That’s more or less a trifecta of science fiction creature creation.

There are aliens in Deepness; Vinge calls them spiders, but they talk like post-WWII white Californians. I was reading Ada Palmer‘s Seven Surrenders at the same time I was reading A Deepness in the Sky, and I found Palmer’s far-future humans far stranger than either of Vinge’s non-earth human civilizations or his aliens. There’s an argument from the text that the spiders are (through translators) presenting themselves as less alien than they actually are and thus manipulating for their own reasons the humans who have entered the spiders’ star system. It’s plausible, but (a) I’m not sure that I buy it, and (b) it doesn’t change the experience of reading the many, many chapters that take place before that explanation can make any sense. That experience had me very close to uttering the Eight Deadly Words.

Part of why I didn’t is that the setup of Deepness is genuinely nifty. The main site of the action is a system called On-Off, named for a star whose intensity rises and falls drastically over periods of time that are, by cosmic standards, extremely short. For the planet orbiting On-Off in the habitable zone, that means summers that last for many years followed by equally lengthy winters chilly enough for most of the atmosphere to freeze solid. (Seasons more extreme than Westeros; A Game of Thrones was published just a few months before Deepness. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, posited a similar but less stark environment in her second novel, Planet of Exile in the mid-1960s.) Improbably, life has evolved on this planet, and just as improbably, it has achieved sentience and civilization, adapted to the need to go into hibernation and survive underground until the next thaw. Two starfaring civilizations have been observing On-Off for centuries, enough to know its profile and when it will change states. As luck, or the authorial hand, would have it, both civilizations have chosen to send expeditions to On-Off to catch the beginning of the next On phase.

One civilization, the Qeng Ho, is a loosely knit collection of trading systems and clans, tied together by common approaches to combating cultural drift, by families that control the interstellar fleets, and by a few extraordinary individuals who ration their conscious years carefully among decades or even centuries spent in cold sleep between the stars. The other, the Emergents, control a far smaller number of star systems, but do it much more tightly through tight hierarchies and a means to focus human mental abilities so tightly that they exceed the computation available in that part of the galaxy.

It’s an interesting set-up. Unfortunately, I found the characters one-note, going clickety-clack through their various machinations until the plot engine reached the high point it had been climbing toward through all those pages. It was too much for too little, in the end. There’s another book in the set, Children of the Sky. I own it, and may eventually read it. Online resources tell me it’s a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep– That gives me hope that it’s more engaging than A Deepness in the Sky.

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