NESFA Members' Reviews

coverA Deepness in the Sky

by Vernor Vinge

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Tor, 1999, 606 pp. , $27.95


I've waited five or so years for a new book from Vinge and it's been worth the wait. A Deepness in the Sky is his best book yet and is a damn good example of what first-rate SF can be.

Deepness doesn't really connect to any previous story or novel, though one character from Deepness, Pham, is evidently the Pham who appears in A Fire Upon the Deep. No matter, A Deepness in the Sky stands very well indeed on its own.

Deepness takes place entirely in the Slow Zone where AI and Faster-Than-Light travel and FTL communications are impossible. The time is about 8000 years from now, and Mankind is spread over a rough sphere of stars many hundreds of light years in diameter. Communication is by laser and by STL interstellar ships with nearly all of the crew in cold sleep.

In the end of Human space in which the story is set, the Qeng Ho is a loosely organized society of traders who live mostly on their ships and carry goods and technology between the stars. There is no interstellar government and while star travel is robust, it isn't frequent. A backwater planet might see a starship every century or so, while the greatest civilized centers may have several in dock at a time.

As hinted in A Fire Upon the Deep, one of the limitations of the Slow Zone is that AI is impossible. As a consequence, no civilization in all of Human space has undergone a Vingean Singularity. The highest of high technologies, while well beyond what we can do ourselves today, is not beyond what we can understand, and in fact not beyond what we can expect to have achieved by 2050 or so.

Captain Sam Park has brought a large Qeng Ho fleet to an out-of-the-way world near the edge of Human space. His official motive is to launch an expedition to the On-Off star, an amazing astrophysical freak 50 light years beyond the edge of human settlement.

The latest news is that in the star's previous two light cycles, primitive radio has been heard from its vicinity - alien radio. Although very distant alien sources are known to exist, never before has there been a contemporaneous alien civilization within reach of Human ships. Capt. Park launches for the On-Off star as does an expedition from the Emergents, a nasty totalitarian civilization also located on the edge of Human space. They arrive simultaneously and then the fun begins.

The Emergents are among the nastier villains I've seen, with a plausible and very, very effective slavery -- Vinge has dreamt up a totalitarianism which just might be stable and effective even against free opponents.

How Pham defeats the Emergents is a large, complex, plausible, tautly-told story.

Vinge develops two stories in parallel: the conflicts between the two human groups, and the conflicts that the aliens -- the Spiders -- are having amongst themselves.

On the Spider planet, a civilization is building itself again -- the Spiders are adapted to their planet and hibernate during the long dark periods. The story is told from the point of view of two of the leading Spiders, a genius polymath and his wife who is the command general of her country's Intelligence branch, and their children.

Vinge makes all his characters, human and spider, good guy and villain, real.

Besides a good story with good characters, Vinge has enough throwaway ideas in the background for any three books.

Probably the main fault in the book is that it's not as fast-paced as A Fire Upon the Deep. But it's better!

See also my review of other Vernor Vinge books: A Deepness in the Sky, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

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