Modern Classic: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

Very few books from the last quarter of a century were as influential as A Deepness in the Sky. Even fewer managed to upstage their already great predecessors in a truly grand manner. And while there are other titles spanning massive scales of time and space, well-developed alien civilizations, or a slew of memorable characters the reader develops strong feelings towards, very few authors manage to combine all three into such a delightful classic as Vernor Vinge did.

In a far future, centuries or perhaps millennia after mankind colonized its small piece of space, scientists determined that a nearby star system may host non-human intelligent life. Two expeditions are dispatched to the star, independently of each other. One expedition comes from the Qeng Ho trade federation, a lose confederation of traders without permanent presence anywhere, who instead prefer crossing the space in their ships and trade with planet-bound civilizations. The other group is the Emergents, a militaristic empire that perfected a technique to turn people into autistic savants, called Focus, and use them as a sort of artificial intelligence without the pesky moral dilemmas or distractions, such as personal hygiene.

In the meantime, the planet the two expeditions are traveling to, is cold and dark. It orbits a star the humans dubbed On/Off, as it follows a cycle of high activity, followed by dormancy. The cycle begins with a burst of energy that scorches everything on the planet, followed by a gradual cool-down, until the long, cold night comes along. The arachnid civilization, which inhabits the planet, hibernates deep underground during the dark time, and restores its civilization when the star is shining. This cycle is a little different, as Sherkaner Underhill, the aliens’ top scientist, devises a way to travel on the surface of the planet at night and sabotage vital infrastructure of an enemy nation. This would give his country a decisive advantage when all arachnids begin exiting hibernation at the end of the dark period.

When the two human expeditions meet above the planet, they form a truce, but they are on a collision course. The Qeng Ho came to trade, while the Emergents came to exploit. Neither knows yet whether there is anything valuable on the planet, so they decide to cooperate until they can contact the Spiders, as they call the aliens. However, a sneak attack by the Emergents shatters the peace, and even though the Qeng Ho are technologically superior, they are narrowly overpowered. Both factions suffer debilitating losses, and the Emergents see no option than to assimilate the surviving Qeng Ho and wait for the Spiders’ technology reach a level where they could help them repair enough ships to leave the planet.

From then on, we follow two parallel stories. One is that of the Arachnids’ technological progress, fueled primarily by Underhill. He is also breaking down all religious boundaries his society has been built on, making powerful enemies in the process. It appears that a nuclear showdown between his country and an adversarial theocracy is inevitable, and even though Underhill’s wife Victory (and later their children) is a high-ranking military official who is putting Underhill’s inventions to good use, their enemies are achieving better progress in military technology, and it seems likely that Underhill’s side will be obliterated.

Meanwhile, in the orbit, a few of the Qeng Ho are beginning to doubt the sincerity of the Emergents. The Emergents captain, Thomas Nau, has positioned himself as a benevolent leader, who has been doing everything in his power to avoid more bloodshed, and who had to make some difficult decisions, such as Focusing the top Qeng Ho scientists, in order to ensure the survival of the twin expedition. However, Ezr Vinh, the de-facto leader of what remains from the Qeng Ho, suspects that Nau is exploiting them, in more ways than one. Nau’s girlfriend, a Qeng Ho girl named Qiwi, keeps finding out the truth about Nau so often that she needs to have her memories scrubbed on a regular basis. However, it’s the washed-out old-timer Pham Trinli, who is the only one able to see through Nau’s treachery and devise a plan to overthrow his regime, if he’s not caught by one of Nau’s security goons before that.

In an explosive finale, the humans initiate an all-out nuclear war among the Arachnids, and at the same time Trinli is forced to improvise as he is implicated in his conspiracy before he is ready to strike. But things take an unexpected turn when the Focused slaves come into focus (sorry), in more ways than one.

Vinge has done it. After his amazing A Fire Upon the Deep, he delivered a prequel that blew its predecessor out of the water. From a technical perspective, A Deepness in the Sky is nearly perfect, and it ranks very high among the books that must be read more than once. The scale is just as epic as in the first book, the aliens are fascinating, and the adventure is even more exciting. However, the thing that distinguishes this novel from Fire is the quality of the characters.

No heroes can be heroic without good antagonists, and Thomas Nau belongs among the most despicable villains in literature. He is using and abusing everyone for his needs, in such an offhand manner that I doubt the author could force any kind of self-reflection on him. Vinge makes him so easy to hate that regardless who’d stand against him, they’d look almost saintly in comparison. Personally, I can’t think of even half a dozen of literary characters I’d hate and fear as much as Nau.

His opponents are a mixed bag, but also very well thought out. There’s Trinli, who is quite one-dimensional (save for a sudden change of heart about one topic), but whose one-man secret crusade against Nau makes him stand out as the quintessential hero. Then there is Qiwi, by far the smartest and most capable of the lot, whose personal tragedy is the periodic memory wipe, which makes her one of the most tragic literary victims I’ve encountered. She’s not Nau’s only victim, though; there are several more characters who appear throughout the book to shine an even worse light on him and his regime. And finally, there’s Ezr. He is the only one with a significant character development, and even though he starts out as Nau’s pliable tool and a lovesick fool, he grows into an impressive young man.

Characterization on the aliens’ side is a little less developed. Underhill and his family, as well as a few of their friends and antagonists are all fairly flat and one-dimensional. They seem a standard fare of an idea-driven novel, and I wouldn’t mind that if their lack of complexity and development didn’t contrast so much with the humans. Here, the author focused, like in the case of the Tines in the first book, on the Arachnid society, politics and technological progress, as well as how their unique biology dictated all these elements. Vinge was a little more obscure here, so even though we learn about multiple eyes and the lifecycle of a baby spider, we don’t get such strong connection between their physical characteristics and their society. The Aerachnids seem much more anthropomorphized than the Tines or other alien species in A Fire Upon the Deep, which makes them more approachable for the reader, but also a little dull.

The worldbuilding itself, however, is superb. It may have served as inspiration for later, highly successful books, from Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, to Cixin’s The Three Body Problem. Vinge tackles everything in one book: from the evolution of a society, through the implications of living under a variable star, to the description of two very distinct human societies. Just like the first book, he plays with enormous scales, but where Fire was mostly concerned with spatial scale, Deepness is strung along the temporal axis. I found it mind-blowing that the story took decades to play out, and yet people seemed much less concerned about the time scale than they logically should have been. This posed some less realistic scenarios: relationships lasted decades and people never broke up, no children were born, and the same friendships (and drinking buddies) persisted throughout the book. The antagonists seem to have had good fun during the time span of the story, but most of the other people were either worked to near death or remained static at their places. Some characters reminded me a little too much on the Barflies of Moe’s Tavern in The Simpsons.

For me, though, the most amazing thing about the time scale was how Vinge managed to condense it into a single novel. The book is not small, clocking at over 700 pages, give or take a few depending on the edition. Still, Vinge found a rhythm that never feels too stale, crammed, or hectic. He keeps the second act exciting by focusing on the Arachnids and largely ignoring the day-to-day grind of the humans. The third act builds up gradually, and despite accounting for about 20% of the novel, it feels exciting and fast flowing. I never felt bored or overwhelmed while reading the book, and in particular the finale had the ideal pace for me: not a drawn-out diatribe that’s so common in epic fantasy series, and not the abrupt endings Neal Stephenson is known for.

Vinge wrote a true masterpiece. He managed to get across hugely influential ideas, a story that spans multiple decades, two distinct species and multiple societies. He did it in a way that was neither boring nor overwhelming. His characters were a marked improvement from the book’s predecessor. The nuances in the story, twists, and character development make a second read-through even better than the first one, and the book will remain fresh through multiple reads. A Deepness in the Sky is a wonderful book that will always be within easy reach in my library.

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