Review of A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
I don't know about you, but I spend an inordinate amount of time meditating upon the far future of humanity. I don't just worry about the future of my generation, or the future of the generation after mine, or the future of a couple of generations down the line. I'm talking one-, ten-, fifty-thousand years into the future. Will humanity still exist—would we recognize it as humanity even if it does? How many times between now and then will civilizations rise and fall? Because if there's one constant across the depths of space and time, it's that nothing lasts forever. Empires and republics alike crumble under the weight of corruption, stagnation, or the simple stress inherent in managing a civilization separated by light-years. If we don't find fancy physics or technology to cast off the shackles of the light-speed barrier, we're looking at a very distorted, relativistic existence indeed. It's this sort of realistic, hard science fiction that promises us no easy answers and makes me wonder if humans are really meant to live in space. With A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge convinces me that he's a perfect example of that ethos.
I liked A Fire Upon the Deep. Taken together with this prequel, its title always reminds me of "Smoke on the Water" ("Fire in the sky!"). As much as I liked A Fire Upon the Deep, its hard-science-fiction tropes never quite cohere, and the story and characterization suffer as a result. In contrast, A Deepness in the Sky unifies some of the same tropes—as well as new ones—to create a compelling story and pathos for the plights of the characters.
The ideological struggle between the remnants of the Qeng Ho and Emergent fleets is a ripe ground for observations on human society and attitudes toward power. Tomas Nau is in many ways a moustache-twirling villain, complete with the sadistic right-hand minion (Ritser Brughel) and the indispensable trusted lieutenant (Anne Reynolt). He likes to be in control, to use people, like Qiwi Lisolet, and has no compunctions about lying or coercing when necessary. However, he has more depth than your ordinary Snidely Whiplash. He doesn't think of himself as being evil, just as doing what's necessary to survive. He is a product of Emergent society and its values, was raised from birth to be a ruthless and cunning Podmaster. Vinge manages to make Tomas a believable antagonist, one whose defeat comes not from his own incompetence but from a combination of betrayal and skillful planning on the part of the protagonists.
Speaking of protagonists, I like this Pham Nuwen much better than his clone in A Fire Upon the Deep. Just as Tomas is a multi-dimensional character, Pham isn't a paragon of goodliness. Since Pham is in the fleet under an assumed name, Vinge milks the irony cow for all it's worth by having Tomas confess his admiration for the historical exploits of Pham Nuwen. Indeed, as we learn from flashbacks and Pham's heavy ruminations, he has done things of which he is not proud. And for Pham, the Emergent slavery known as Focus is a nigh-irresistible lure, a promise that could fulfil Pham's dreams of a true Qeng Ho empire. So Pham has his flaws, and he's lucky that he has an idealist like Ezr Vinh to keep him on the straight and narrow. Because that's the difference between Pham Nuwen and Tomas Nau, despite Tomas' own comparisons to the Pham Nuwen of Qeng Ho legend: Pham knows when to give up his dreams and embrace something new.
In between these two major characters are all sorts of minor allies and enemies and people of uncertain loyalty. These are the fuel for a truly tense, suspenseful conflict. The Qeng Ho, stuck under the thumb of Nau's Emergent control, do what they do best: they slowly, inexorably wear down the stringent Emergent psyche, corrupting it with an underground market. Thanks to an Emergent sneak attack early in the novel, both fleets have been crippled, and they need to work together to survive until the Spiders achieve the technological level necessary to repair their ships. Humans are complex entities, however; even though working together is a rational response to the crisis, it's not going to be easy. Ezr, in particular, is incensed by the idea of Focus and chafes under the Emergent yoke.
Focus is a tamed virus that increases the neurological connections in its victims' brains, causing them to become very competent in one area, like linguistics, at the expense of most of their social and interpersonal skills. It's a form of literal intellectual slavery, a substitute for the lack of high-performance computing that's the legacy of living in the "Slow Zone" of the galaxy, where no artificial intelligence is possible. Focus allows people to achieve remarkable breakthroughs, whether it's in translation or biomechanics; however, as the name suggests, it results in a narrow-minded expert obsessed with a single field of study. This breaks the heart of Qiwi and Ezr, who have Focused loved ones, even as it fires up Pham's mind with the possibilities of what one could achieve, if one is willing to pay the price.
Focus is just one of the medley of technological and social nova that Vinge introduces. Often he is explicit in the consequences for society: for example, the localizers offer the ability to achieve efficient distributed computing, but they might also result in a surveillance society. Nevertheless, like other good science fiction authors, he still develops the society in an organic, natural manner. We see the Qeng Ho and Emergents interact with their technology and draw our own conclusions about how it shapes their lives and mores. Even something like Focus can be controversial and subjective: I've been calling it slavery, but like Pham or Tomas, maybe another person might not see it that way. There are always compromises when new technology pervades society, and that's one of the reasons science fiction is so useful and compelling.
Vinge parallels this problem in the development of Spider society. Their world is the sole planet in orbit of OnOff, a brown dwarf that enjoys 35 years of life-giving brightness before dimming for 215 years (hence its name). So they have 35-year generations, each followed by the Dark, through which they hibernate in deepnesses. As the Emergents and Qeng Ho arrive, that is about to change. A brilliant scientist, Sherkaner Underhill, spurs a scientific renaissance that culminates in the Spiders staying awake through the Dark.
We get a front-row seat to the ensuing turmoil in the fractured Spider society. The natural cycle of Brightness and Dark has had a profound effect on everything the Spiders do. Children are conceived at the end of the cycle (the Waning Years) and grow to adulthood during the next Brightness. Defying this custom results in oophase or "out-of-phase" children, who are ostracized and subject to pejorative stereotypes. But now that the Spiders can live during the Dark, that, like a myriad other things, will have to change. This results in a lengthy and tense conflict between the more liberal Accord kingdom and the traditionalist Kindred, and this conflict culminates with mushroom clouds.
The Spider characters—mostly Underhill's brood, although Hrunkner Unnerby is a lovable old curmudgeon as well—are quite entertaining. The chapters presented from the Spider point of view make them seem so human, despite the references to "eating hands" and "baby welts" and "paternal fur." We watch Underhill's children, notorious for being oophase, grow up and mature. One of them dies during a harrowing kidnapping, and it changes their dynamic forever. Suddenly, they can't afford to be precocious innocents anymore. They are soldiers, even if they aren't enlisted in the army yet, and they have to be prepared. Underhill's family is at the centre of the same kind of social and political turmoil we've seen so often in human society, particularly in this past century. Technological advances allow us to do more, whether it's in vitro fertilization or putting weapons in space. There are always reactionary groups who want to stuff the technology back into its box, suppress it, get rid of it somehow. But you can't. Underhill summarizes this sentiment rather nicely when he talks about wanting to make invention the mother of necessity rather than the other way around: innovations require social change. And sometimes that hurts.
There's a lot of hurt here. Some of the characters, like Ezr or Qiwi, are probably safely labelled as "good guys," but no one is squeaky clean. A Deepness in the Sky is an utterly fascinating, sometimes chilling, always poignant book. It has characters you can care about, conflicts that end in messy and flawed resolutions, and a sense of futility regarding the longevity of human societies tempered by the reassurance that, regardless of era, humans are as wonderful and surprising as they are selfish and destructive. I don't know if we'll be Qeng Ho, or Emergents, or something completely different. In all probability, if we last that long, we'll have experienced a little of everything. No matter how much I try, I can't quite comprehend the time scales involved or the numbers of people who will live and die between my lifetime and Pham Nuwen's. With Vernor Vinge and A Deepness in the Sky, however, I can come close. And that's ultimately what great books do: not only do they show us worlds we can imagine; they show us worlds we can't.