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Review of Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky

Rekindling my sense of wonder

This is why you read science fiction.

A Deepness in the Sky has been one of the more eagerly awaited SF novels of the nineties. Vernor Vinge used to write stories and novels which were bursting with ideas and as hard as nails. And then in 1991 he produced A Fire Upon the Deep, which neatly combined a set of complex human and alien characters, a majestic galaxy full of cool stuff, and a deft ear for the argot of the then state-of-the-art USENET. Vinge collected a Hugo for his masterpiece. But he never gave up the day job, and we've had to wait eight years for his next novel.

A Deepness in the Sky is set in the same universe, thirty thousand years earlier. It has a single character somewhat in common with A Fire Upon the Deep, and you do not need to have read the earlier book. The back-drop still spans galaxies, but the main action of the novel is set in a single star system over half a century.

The star in question is peculiar. Like a galactic Belisha beacon, it switches on and off, staying on for thirty-five years in every two hundred and fifty. The intelligent spider-like creatures who inhabit its planet build their civilisation in the sunshine, then hibernate in underground bunkers through the cold and dark. All other life dies back, leaving only spores, until the star relights. And this has been going on for millennia, but at the opening of the book the Spiders have developed aircraft, telephones and radio and are just beginning to experiment with staying awake in the dark. Much of the story is told from the point of view of two married spiders; Victory Smith, a spy, and Shernaker Underhill, a mad scientist, and their children.

Meanwhile, the radio waves have attracted the attention of two sets of human visitors. The Qeng Ho are space traders, plying their slower than light ships between stars and spinning their lives over thousands of years by spending much of their journeys asleep. They have watched as one after another civilisation collapses after a few thousand years, and made an art of bartering with civilisations as they develop. On board this fleet is Pham Nuwen, once a hero of the Qeng Ho but now old, disillusioned and incognito. The other group, the Emergents, are a new human civilisation, which has achieved remarkable progress in a short time, but only at a considerable cost.

Early talk between the two human expeditions of a co-operative endeavour turns out to be merely a front for treachery. A vicious battle leaves neither side in a position to do anything but work co-operatively and wait for the spiders to achieve space-flight. The Emergents have the whip hand, and their leaders wield power effectively and amorally. The Qeng Ho work, and trade where they can, and everyone watches the spiders and plots for the time when contact is finally made.

Vinge provides plenty to delight the hard sf reader, with galactic scope and an abundance of weird science. But it is the human and spider relationships that drive this book, as Vinge spins a dizzying web of parallels between Qeng Ho and Emergents, humans and aliens, humans and computers, and author and characters. He is exploring the nature of obsession, and that theme and others are picked up repeatedly in this literary fugue. The restriction of the action to a small part of Vinge's endlessly inventive galaxy just gives him more scope to develop a more limited vision thoroughly. The result is a long and complex novel, but you are unlikely to begrudge it that. And it has kittens with wings. What more could you want?

A Deepness in the Sky is one of the great science fiction novels of the decade, just sneaking in before the millennium. Buy it; in hardback so you can read it several times. In fact, buy it here, so that Dr. Plokta can get the clickthroughs.

Thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor books for PNN's copy of A Deepness in the Sky, which we will be auctioning for fan funds at Eastercon. Publishers are welcome to give us other review copies of really terrific new books.

[Cover Illustration]

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-- Alison Scott

07 Mar 1999

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