A Deepness in the Sky

Vernor Vinge

Book cover

It took me a long time to pick this up after reading Vinge’s “A Fire Upon The Deep,” which I didn’t like very much–and even longer to finish it, as it’s nearly 800 pages long. I think I had to check it out of the library three separate times. But all that said, I really liked it!

I feel like it’s rare for me these days to enjoy a SF/F novel that’s not character- or relationship-driven, but this one managed to hit a sweet spot. The characterization is fine, and certainly not as wooden as other hard SF writers I’m familiar with, like Arthur C. Clarke. Sherkaner Underhill, the lead Spider protagonist, is probably the best-drawn character, and Tomas Nau is definitely one of the most twisted villains I’ve come across. Pham, Ezr, Qiwi, and other main characters are fine.

But Vinge manages to spin out his core hard-SF concepts in really thought-provoking ways. A few selected examples:
- The history of technology portrayed in the book is super interesting, even if you “cheat” by bringing in external knowledge of how this universe works from reading AFUTD. The Dawn Age (our time) is followed by the Age of Failed Dreams, when humanity discovers that technological dreams such as artificial intelligence, FTL travel, and immortality are simply not achievable. Thus, the tech of the universe is a very advanced but basically recognizable version of our own world. This is a really different approach than much SF takes and it leads VV to some interesting places.
- I’d give as an example the concept of Focus. As a brief fairly spoiler-free recap, Focus is sort of a dark version of Dune’s mentats–humans whose brains are transformed to make them much more capable at some specific task (piloting, translation, art), but through a process that more or less destroys their essential humanity and makes them incapable of living normal lives; basically a form of enslavement. This idea struck me as much more believable than the Dune mentats, who are just people who are really good at calculating stuff. (Come to think of it, it’s much more closely related to Dune’s guild navigators.)
- The on-watch/off-watch shifts of coldsleep induce some really interesting relationship dynamics, which could have been drawn out even better if VV focused more on writing relationships. There are characters who fall in love with someone younger who, due to the shift schedule, ends up being much older than them.
- The society of the Spiders was really interesting to me, somehow much more so than the dog-society in AFUTD. The regular hibernation of their star drives a lot of the structure of their culture, similar to the recurrence of “fifth seasons” in Jemisin’s Broken Earth series. I also thought that Vinge handled the first contact between the Spiders and humans really deftly, showing how visual and physical revulsion are forces that we can, and probably should, try to overcome in building relationships with other sentient beings. I can well imagine that first contact with a real alien species, where we receive transmissions far in advance of physical contact, could go similarly to what is depicted in this book.

In addition to the characters/relationships not being a strong point, I also thought that certain plot points were resolved too quickly or neatly, specifically relating to people picking up on deceptions faster than I think they would have. And I do think the book could have been edited down to a more manageable length without losing critical plot. But I do think I will continue to think about this book well after putting it down.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars