A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY
by Vernor Vinge
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is set in the same universe as his Hugo-Award winning A Fire on the Deep, it is neither sequel nor prequel. Set several millennia before the events of A Fire on the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky takes place in a completely different part of the galaxy and many of the regions of development Vinge expounded upon in the earlier work do not even appear in the new book. Nevertheless, A Deepness in the Sky will appeal to fans of the earlier book.
The novel begins with a group of traders, the Qeng Ho, and another organization called the Emergents approaching a strange stellar object called the OnOff star. A dim star for the majority of its life, every two centuries, it flares up, as reliable as Old Faithful. The period of brightness lasts for about thirty years. The Qeng Ho and Emergents have arrived in time to witness this strange event and see how they can make a profit off it.
At the same time, Vinge explores the planet Arachna, in orbit around the OnOff star. Despite the inhospitability of the system, Arachna has managed to give birth to several species, including an intelligent species. During the two centuries the OnOff star is dark, the "Spiders" hibernate, only emerging for the brief period when the star flares up. The "Spiders" have, however, managed to create a culture which seems to be on par with human technology during the twentieth century. Furthermore, their society seems to be very close to human society.
Vinge also has created a cast of characters with a variety of complex motivations. His villains act in intelligent ways, which allows Vinge to have his heroes act in the same manner without either side seeming too simplistic. The Emergent leader, Thomas Nau, clearly can think like one of his enemies without coming to sympathize with them, a skill that neither the Qeng Ho Captain Sammy Park nor Vinge's viewpoint character Ezr Vinh have.
In many ways, the Spiders and their culture are the most interesting part of A Deepness in the Sky. Their methods of dealing with the Deep, as the refer to their periods of hibernation and strange war which they fight each time they come out of hibernation are enough to maintain the reader's interest. Vinge's portrayal of the genius Sherkanner Underhill, a Spider who figures out ways to defeat the need to go into hibernation is just icing on the cake.
However, the Spiders are also one of the weakest parts of the novel. Their society is a little too much like the culture of humans in the twentieth century. If Vinge had been trying to say that certain levels of society would create certain types of culture, this might have been interesting, but this is not the case. As it is, the similarity of the cultures has an unfortunate tendency to conflict with a reader's suspension of disbelief.
A Deepness in the Sky is the sort of science fiction novel that many science fiction apologists point to when explaining why science fiction is a legitimate form of fiction in their arguments to win over non-science-fiction readers. In many ways, they are right to do so. Vinge's writing is literate and his ability to tell a good story is without question. However, he also includes a reliance on scientific knowledge which, while expected by science fiction fans will be distancing to those who do not already read the genre.
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