August 07, 2005

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

The Qeng Ho are a group of traders and investors -- humans in the far future -- larger than any civilization they are a decentralized commercial entity that operates in a vast region of space near the galaxy rim. They trade with several civilizations (or as they call them: Customers). The human colonies established in the deep past, have each had cycles of technological progress, with an eventual regression into medieval societies. Sometimes such colonies bounce back and create new technologies. And the Qeng Ho usually reappear to trade with them.

One such recovering human colony is the Emergency. The Emergents have recovered from their regression and bounced back to form a strong space-faring empire. They seem to be efficient beyond their technological reach, and are secretive about their powers.

Now, from a planet orbiting the mysterious OnOff star in the Emergent neighbourhood, there is a transmission from a civilization that has just disovered radio waves. It is the first contact with a non-human sentience. Both the Qeng Ho and the Emergents dispatch a fleet of spaceships to make contact -- and to establish a monopoly on the trading of new technologies, biological or otherwise from this planet. While both sides try to reach the OnOff system first, there is another complication: the OnOff star has a strange cycle where it is completely dark for 250 years followed by a lighting and Sun-like brightness for the next 60 or so years. During the dark unlit period, all life on the planet has evolved to hiberate deep within the crust of the planet. Each species has its own form of deepness. The Qeng Ho and the Emergents settle into orbit around the OnOff star during its off period, awaiting the next cycle of light, when they can establish contact with the aliens.

The aliens are morphologically similar to spiders, they have a carapace but have six legs instead of a spidery eight. While the Qeng Ho and the Emergents maneuver around each other waiting out the 250 years of the dark, they consistently underestimate about how alien the `Spiders' actually are. They have nation states and leaders, science and technology, but they are still not human -- and in the end, that was makes every plan any of the humans make effectively obsolete.

Early incidents in the novel cause the the Emergents and the Qeng Ho to be thrown together. Tomas Nau, Ritser Brughel and Anne Reynolt of the Emergents have to deal with the Qeng Ho including Pham Trinli, the Programmer-At-Arms, Ezr Vinh, a manager, Qiwi Lisolet, the engineer and Trixia Bonsol, the linguist. In parallel, the story of the `Spiders' unfolds. Sherkaner Underhill is the main character of these stories. He is an eager scientist and inventor and manages to convince his colleagues like Victory Smith and Hrunkner Unnerby to join him in his plans to conquer the darkness of the Sun.

Vinge shows us the aliens through the sympathetic human eyes of Trixia Bonsol through most of the novel (she is responsible for the names given to each `Spider' character), but strips away the anthropomorphic descriptions towards the end of the novel. In terms of world building, the classics are books like "Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement, "Dune" by Frank Herbert, "Neutron Star" and "The Integral Trees" by Larry Niven and "Flux" by Stephen Baxter. "A Deepness in the Sky" can easily hold its own in this illustrious company.

Science fiction, and space opera in particular, has always been about the vast sweep of space, time and future history. The genre is often about great technological and social changes that occur over immense lengths of time and the detailed construction of a truly alien world. Vernor Vinge captures this notion perfectly in this novel. The length of this novel helps in this regard, but to Vernor Vinge's credit, I cannot point to a single chapter in this novel and claim that it was superfluous. The novel has the rare distinction of being no shorter than it had to be, while being 800 pages long.

It is a novel of first contact, but it is also about the scientific method and how it can lead to and triumph over technological superiority. Along with "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks, this book is one of the best space opera novels from the 1990s that I've read. Vinge brings to the genre a particular hard-sf sensibility that is unique and quite difficult to pull off -- space opera without superluminal travel has been done before but usually unsuccessfully. Vinge manages to retain the medieval trappings of space opera while remaining loyal to the hard-sf tradition.

"A Deepness in the Sky" is a prequel of sorts to Vernor Vinge's earlier book "A Fire Upon the Deep". Set 10,000 years in the past from the events in the earlier book, there is nothing about the plot that is shared between the books. The notion of `deep' is not even the same. But, we do get to see at first hand the exploits of Pham Nuwen and the Qeng Ho.

Both books feature Pham Nuwen but those familiar with "A Fire Upon the Deep" will know that during the events in that book, Pham Nuwen was reconstructed by a sentient virus of sorts and there was some doubt about his authenticity. This novel contains his real story. A story that occurs in the twilight of his career -- but one which contains the defining moment of his character.

Vinge has a weakness for the unredeemable villain. In his earlier "A Fire Upon the Deep" as well as in this novel, he has a character who is, regardless of whether you believe in a particular philosophy, absolutely evil. As such, this is one aspect of the space opera genre that Vinge retains faithfully in his novels. Unlike Iain M. Banks, Vinge does not analyze the source of the evil. But, on the other hand, the swashbuckling hero character of the space opera genre does not remain in the traditional form. In this novel, there are many heroes, both male and female, one is young and heroic, one is a wild-eyed inventor, one is a weary prisoner-of-war and one is a very old hacker with a Napoleon complex. Some of these heroes are not even human.

Vernor Vinge does have a day job as a professor of computer science. As a result he pays careful attention to the details of the computing machinery of the various civilizations in this novel. While many sf authors use nanotechnology as a magical device, Vinge uses it as a powerful distributed network and computing device. He also invents a novel method of maintaining and composing software that is used by the Emergents (because in the future, there is so much code that all the effort is in putting them together and fixing bugs, rather than writing new code). The Emergents software development process can be thought of as a perversion of the common free software sentiment: "a thousand eyes make all bugs shallow".

Perhaps for reasons of continuity with "A Fire Upon the Deep", Vinge still has Bussard-style ramjets in this novel. There is some skepticism that they can ever be technically feasible (see "Entering Space" by Robert Zubrin) although a detailed technical discussion is probably beside the point here.

%T A Deepness in the Sky %A Vernor Vinge %I Tor Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0812536355 (pb) %P 774 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/05/30

Posted by anoop at August 7, 2005 09:32 PM