A Fire Upon the Deep was a big success for Vernor Vinge, winning the 1993 Hugo Award. Seven years later, he followed up with A Deepness in the Sky, set 20,000 years earlier in the same universe, and this captured the 2000 Hugo Award and John W. Campbell Award. I came to both books with high expectations and was eager for a big-canvas space opera filled with mind-boggling technologies, exotic aliens, galactic civilizations, and a big cast of characters. Sadly, the first volume didn’t engage me, and I’m afraid the second didn’t either. At 28 hours, this audiobook became a chore about halfway through, and I mainly forced myself to finish it because I wanted to be able to write a review of it as a Hugo winner long on my TBR list.
It was an interesting decision to set the “prequel” so far back in chronology that none of the distinguishing features of the Zones of Thought are known. The scale of A Deepness in the Sky‘s story is restricted to human-occupied space, before it was discovered that higher Zones of Thought exist. That was probably the most original and interesting idea of A Fire Upon the Deep, so I was surprised Vinge didn’t want to explore it further. In this book there is no FTL and humans have only encountered one other alien species that has not achieved advanced technological development. Instead, human space has been explored mainly by the Qeng Ho, who have pursued interstellar trade throughout human space. When a new alien species is discovered on a planet orbiting an oscillating On-Off star, they immediately see this as an opportunity for potential new scientific discoveries, i.e. profit. However, a separate human civilization called the Emergents are also interested in the new alien species, so the two groups are set on a collision course.
What distinguishes the Emergents is that they have taken a ‘mindrot’ virus that plunged them into a Dark Age, and controlled it so that they can direct the mental activities of people and make them Focused, concentrating on just a single task with obsessive attention. In a sense, they are human computers, something like the Mentats of Frank Herbert‘s Dune but far less independent. Instead, they are used as specialized living tools to further the aim of the controllers, or pod leaders, and are treated as disposable equipment.
Initially the Qeng Ho and Emergents form a fragile truce as they observe the aliens, whom they dub ‘Spiders’ due to their arachnid appearance, but there are a number of plots brewing below the surface, and fairly soon there is a major betrayal that brings both sides into open conflict. Though the Emergents gain the upper hand due to their ambush, both sides suffer major losses of life and their ships are heavily damaged. This sets the stage for the bulk of the story in A Deepness in the Sky.
The story alternates with another narrative that is initially very confusing. We are introduced to an incongruous group of characters named Sherkaner Underhill, Victory Smith, Hrunkner Unnerby, Honored Pedure. Initially they seem to be people living in a simple small-town existence in an unnamed place not entirely unlike 20th century planet Earth. It is only over time that we come to realize they are very different from what we expected. It takes many hundreds of pages more to understand ‘why’ they were presented in this manner. Once I understood why they were described in this way, the story made more sense, but it’s a major spoiler to say much more, and even after the truth emerged, I wasn’t really comfortable with how Vinge handled this part of the story. Sure, it’s an innovative approach, but it made these characters much more ‘conventional’ than they would normally be in a sci-fi context. After hundreds of pages it felt like an overused gimmick, and didn’t really reveal anything of importance about perceptions that we don’t already know.
The scientific details of the arachnid world and its unusual sun are certainly interesting — this is the hard sci-fi I was expecting. And the Spiders themselves have developed a unique society. Vinge excels at thinking about primitive alien species, and much like the telepathic dog packs in A Fire Upon the Deep, he devotes lots of pages to describing their society in depth. But unfortunately, just like the previous book, I found their societies somehow lacking in alienness or menace. They were both difficult for me to take seriously (this was also the case in C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station). I’m struggling to put a finger on what bothers me, but somehow Vinge’s aliens seem too ‘anthropomorphized’, for lack of a better term. When I think about encounters with the alien, I am much more inclined to believe in aliens that are truly inscrutable and terrifying, like those in Peter Watt’s Blindsight, for example.
The other main narrative in A Deepness in the Sky focuses on the dozens of Qeng Ho and Emergent characters as they are forced to work together to observe the Spiders as their society emerges from the darkness as their star enters the ‘On’ period. There is a huge amount of scheming, scientific meddling, and numerous discussions of the ethics of the Emergents’ use of “Focused” humans, contemptuously call “zipheads” by the Qeng Ho. It is quite disturbing to see how they are treated like disposable wetware, while at the same time being relied on as sophisticated technicians in every conceivable aspect of Emergent life. They actually reminded me a bit of the Scanners in the famous Cordwainer Smith story “Scanners Live in Vain.”
The final third of the book picks up the pace of events, as the two human factions start meddling heavily in the Spider’s technological development for their own reasons, and the Spiders themselves struggle with differing political ideas and social conflict. It’s all quite complex and detailed, and I suspect I was at a disadvantage following it on audio. Events build toward a climax similar to A Fire Upon the Deep, with numerous groups’ plots and sub-plot converging in a complex ballet of space battles, nuclear weapons, and various individual betrayals and twists. This was the best part of A Deepness in the Sky, but after 20 hours of slow-moving story, I was a bit tired and hoping the story would end soon.
That’s why I think A Deepness in the Sky and its predecessor would both have been more effective and exciting if they could drastically cut back on their overlong middle sections. But it seems that major space operas often have to weigh in at 500-700 pages to be taken seriously by fans and award committees, judging by major works by Dan Simmons, Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, etc. I myself prefer them in the 300-400 page range unless the story really justifies such length. In any case, although there are plenty of unanswered questions Vinge has left after two books in his Zones of Thought series, the reviews of the third book Children of the Sky are fairly negative, so I’ll try something more promising instead.
Zones of Thought — (1992-2011) Publisher: After thousands of years searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race. Two human groups: the Qeng Ho, a culture of free traders, and the Emergents, a ruthless society based on the technological enslavement of minds. The group that opens trade with the aliens will reap unimaginable riches. But first, both groups must wait at the aliens’ very doorstep for their strange star to relight and for their planet to reawaken, as it does every two hundred and fifty years…. Then, following terrible treachery, the Qeng Ho must fight for their freedom and for the lives of the unsuspecting innocents on the planet below, while the aliens themselves play a role unsuspected by the Qeng Ho and Emergents alike. More than just a great science fiction adventure, A Deepness in the Sky is a universal drama of courage, self-discovery, and the redemptive power of love. A Deepness in the Sky is a 1999 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel and the winner of the 2000 Hugo Award for Best Novel.