March 25, 2010


by Vernor Vinge
792 pages, Tor Books

Review by Melissa Conway

I have a poor memory. Recently, I was asked the simple question, “What’s your favorite book?” and I said what I’d been saying for years, “Vernor Vinge wrote it. I can’t remember the name—A Darkness in the Deep or A Deepness in the Dark—something like that. It’s awesome; the ending had me jumping around, I was so excited at how clever it was.”

When I realized I couldn’t even remember what had me so excited, I decided to reread it. I’m glad I did.

Plot and title were not the only things I’d forgotten about the Hugo award-winning ‘A Deepness in the Sky.’ Maybe it was because I was young when I first took this tome on, with time on my hands to spend entire afternoons absorbed in a story, but dang! Deepness is LONG. It took me forever to read it this time, squeezing in a chapter between meetings and appointments here, a few pages between chores and obligations there. This is not to imply that reading Deepness again was in any way a chore or obligation—on the contrary, the book is every bit as good as what I recalled of it.

Refreshing my memory only served to reinforce this novel’s place at the top of my favorites list. There’s no way this review can do it justice, so before I try to explain exactly what’s so great about it, please just take my word for it. Even if you’re not a science fiction fan, it’s simply the best.

First of all, Vinge’s intellectual brilliance (he’s a retired computer scientist and Professor of Mathematics) shines through in his work. Not just in his exceptional concepts, but in his ability to filter those concepts through effective word usage, sentence structure, plot and characterization. In other words, he’s a scientist who also happens to be a great writer. He’s got a unique vision of what civilization might be like thousands of years in the future, and the technical skills to put that vision on paper in a highly effective manner.

The Qeng Ho (pronounced Cheng Ho) are the future. Star faring humans, a huge family of traders with ships spread out over known space. In all the thousands of years of exploration, there’s only been one other intelligent race found, until now. Whoever makes first contact will secure great fame and fortune. One Qeng Ho fleet is speeding through space, but hot on their heels are the Emergents, a civilization that has recently ‘emerged’ from a heinous civil war.

In the On/Off solar system, the planet Arachna’s sun phases between light and dark. During its dark phase, the planet’s inhabitants burrow deep underground, where they go into a natural frozen hibernation as the atmosphere of the planet dissipates. The dominant species is a spider-like race with technology similar to that of mid-twentieth century earth.

The Qeng Ho and Emergents arrive at the solar system at nearly the same time. They form an uneasy alliance that is soon destroyed when the Emergents attack. Tomas Nau, the Emergent ‘Podmaster,’ is surprised at the Qeng Ho’s resilience. Even as the Emergents’ horrible biological weapon, a ‘mindrot’ virus, is unleashed, the Qeng Ho manage to fight back. The result is that both fleets are nearly decimated. The remaining Qeng Ho are enslaved, and those whose immune systems were unable to fight off the mindrot virus are subject to ‘focus,’ a deliberate manipulation by Emergent technicians of the virus in their brains that causes them to focus only on one area of specialization. These unfortunate ‘zipheads’ can now hardly even care for themselves; they are only concerned with whatever they’ve been focused on.

Nau must play a dangerous game of keeping the Qeng Ho subjugated through pervasive ziphead-enhanced surveillance as they wait for Arachna’s star to relight. The one attempt at rebellion is quashed quickly and brutally, further subjugating the remaining unfocused Qeng Ho population.

All this sounds very science-fiction-y, doesn’t it? And I promised you’d like it even if you don’t like sci-fi.

Well, there’s more to the story to than the background (and there’s significantly more to the background than I describe here). That’s what’s so great about this novel. The unique stage Vinge sets allows him to write about human behavior under extreme circumstances. And it’s the multi-dimensional characters that really set this story apart. We care about these people—even the ones who aren’t ‘people.’

Vinge uses multiple points of view, including that of the ‘spiders’ themselves before they enter the long ‘deep,’ and again when the sun relights and they emerge. We see through the eyes of one family, whose patriarch is a progressive-minded genius named Hrunkner and whose matriarch is a respected general in the King’s army named Victory. Even though Vinge’s vivid description reminds us often that these creatures are very different physically from us, he rounds them out with familiar emotions. We peek in at their lives as they attempt to change their world through technology and logic aimed at converting the culturally ignorant majority. This world mirrors old earth (us, sixty or so years ago), politically. As nuclear power becomes a reality, the major countries arm themselves with nervous pointed ‘hands’ poised above the red button.

This is what Tomas Nau is counting on. His zipheads are in incognito communication with the spiders, feeding them information that both propels them forward technologically and keeps the various countries at legs-length. Meanwhile, the true hero of the story (well, okay, there are several heroes, but this one is the *main* one), an old Qeng Ho man named Pham Trinli, has figured out an ingenious way to infiltrate Nau’s near-impenetrable surveillance system. We learn a lot about Pham in back-story that’s woven in almost seamlessly. Pham is not the swaggering blow-hard everyone thinks he is.

Life in space under Nau’s thumb has been hard for the Qeng Ho. Entertainment is at a premium, and every week they gather to hear the ziphead’s interpret a spider radio program for children, produced by Hrunkner and Victory and acted by their children. The Qeng Ho, and even some of the Emergents, grow very fond of the beings on the planet they are spying on. They lurk in space, waiting for the spiders' technology to reach a point where it will be profitable to make first contact.

I don’t want to give any more away.

Even if you don’t take my word for it that this book is more than read-worthy, maybe those silver rocket ships on Vinge’s mantel (his Hugos) might sway you. He’s got, I think, four or five of them...

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