A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
Tor, 1999, ISBN 0-312-85683-0
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, and features some of the previous adventures of Pham Nuwen among the Qeng Ho. I previously described this book as "space opera", and Mark Olson questioned that description, saying that it's "more than a notch up from that". I think we are using the term differently; although it's easy and a great temptation to follow a relatively mindless formula in space opera, that's not what I understand as the essential characteristic of it. Space opera is adventure fiction spanning interstellar distances, frequently involving conflicts of civilizations. In Deepness, we have three civilizations contending with each other, the Qeng Ho, the Emergents, and the Spiders, with hints of a fourth, Beyond culture, in the On-Off star itself and some of the fossils the Spiders find.
The Qeng Ho mix free-market economics with a strong family ethic and mutual cooperation. The Emergents are frankly and rather brutally authoritarian, with as nasty a means of keeping slaves in line as I've seen in fiction. The Spiders, at least the good-guy spiders, have an evolving constitutional monarchy. The bad-guy spiders appear to be communists.
The Emergents and the Qeng Ho independently notice that there are artificial radio signals coming from the immediate neighborhood of the On/Off Star, a star with a really strange periodicity of about thirty years "on" and two hundred years "off"--apparently really off, although that seems to be impossible. They mount separate expeditions, and arrive at about the same time, a few years before the most recent "off" period will end. While they're engaged in initial reconnaissance of the planet and negotiations for a peaceful sharing of the trade opportunities (during which the Qeng Ho make the alarming discovery that the Emergents lack a proper appreciation of the value of repeat business), the Emergents demonstrate that, at least on this occasion, they're sneakier than the Qeng Ho. They launch a surprise attack aimed at seizing control of the Qeng Ho fleet, which is successful enough that in the aftermath, they do have the upper hand in running things until the awakening of the Spiders , who are dormant during the star's Off phase. Most of the book is the alternating stories of the Spiders' technological and political developments in the last years of the previous active phase and the new active phase after the star turns on again, and the quiet struggle between the Qeng Ho and the Emergents for control of the surviving combined fleet, and whatever technology and trade goods can be obtained from the Spiders when their civiliation reaches the critical point at which they can profitably be contacted. It becomes, on the one hand, the story of a few Spiders pressing technological progress as fast as they can, because of what they suspect may be Out There, and on the other hand, the conflict of values and of worldviews--and of imaginations--between the Qeng Ho and the Emergents. The Emergent spymaster notices that the Qeng Ho have a ship called Invisible Hand, and is surprised by this display of understanding of Security; it seems so unlike the Qeng Ho. The Qeng Ho are appalled by what the Focus virus allows the Emergents to do to the people who are susceptible to it (which is a smaller, but still very large, percentage of the Qeng Ho than of the Emergents' own people), but a little bit seduced by the concentration of mental resources it makes possible. The Emergents are appalled by, but perhaps rather more seduced by, what market forces allow the Qeng Ho to do with available resources to make the crippled fleet a more comfortable and pleasant place during the years of waiting for the On/Off star's restart and the Spiders' technological development. And there's a long time for this mutual cultural contamination to take place; Ezr Vinh is a young man in the Qeng Ho fleet, and Qiwi Lisolet is an adolescent girl. They grow up, effectively, under Emergent occupation, and play very different but important roles in making sure sure the Qeng Ho survive as a culture. It's an interesting and complex tale, with excellent character development, and I haven't even talked about what Pham Nuwen's doing during all this. It's an excellent book, and if you haven't read it yet, should. Strongly recommended.