A Deepness in the Sky
TOR Books (1999)
Read this if you like: Hard sci-fi, world building, the Foundation series
tl;dr summary: Long-view space opera with deep political undertones that presents a unique viewpoint on both technology and time.
This book came my way via recommendation from a friend who’s been helping me fill holes in my sci-fi history. This is a prequel to Vinge’s 1992 novel A Fire Upon the Deep, though it shares only the world and a single character with the first novel (according to same said friend).
The narrative of A Deepness in the Sky is complex in that Vinge keeps a lot of plates spinning at once, but the writing style is straightforward and the characters are well-developed, making it easy to navigate between the two major story threads. One introduces the pre-spacefaring arachnid race whose planet orbits the OnOff star, a unique solar phenomenon that produces light only 35 of every 250 years. The other follows the conflict between two human groups who have come to explore and exploit the OnOff star: the trading culture of the Qeng Ho and the Emergents, whose advanced technology utilizes a plague called Focus to enhance a person’s natural expertise to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions.
Perhaps because of its complexity (and also possibly owing to the fact that I haven’t read the previous installment) I admittedly took a while to feel oriented and interested in the world of the Qeng Ho and the Emergents. There are a lot of characters to get to know. All of them eventually become fully fleshed and necessary, but for the first 50-odd pages it was only my trust in my friend’s past recommendations that kept me pushing forward. The spider culture, on the other hand, I found instantly engaging—perhaps because we’re given entry into that world through the charmingly naïve Sherkaner Underhill, oddly a more relatable protagonist than anyone on the space side of the tale, at least at first. The obvious irony is the Qeng Ho and Emergents are human while the spiders are one of the more alien sentient races I’ve seen put to page (and also I’m generally not the biggest fan of spiders). Without spoiling anything, I’ll say by the end it’s clear this was an intentional device, one masterfully executed.
Technology as a means of both advancement and exploitation (to the point of enslavement) is the primary thematic drive. The negative aspects of technology are explored through Focus, used by the Emergents both as tool and biological warfare. Focused individuals obsess with one thing only, achieving an impossible level of expertise at the cost of their humanity. The question becomes whether this sacrifice is worth it even for the greater good. The struggle plays out through the plot thread of the remarkable Qeng Ho character Pham Trinli. The spider civilization finds themselves in the opposite situation. Sherkaner Underhill and his associates use technology to further their progressive worldview, struggling against the traditionalists who fear what advancement may bring. The cultures are foils to each other in a sense, though ultimately it’s the interplay between the two that serves as catalyst for the climax.
Vinge’s use of time is a less plotty but equally interesting element. Given the strange cycling of their star, the spiders spend two centuries hibernating in deepnesses for each generation they’re awake, meaning they have to re-boot their civilization each time the sun re-lights. The Qeng Ho and Emergents use artificial hibernation (known as cold sleep, their own “depness in the sky”) to permit long journeys through the stars. As they remain in orbit around the OnOff star, some characters spend more time in cold sleep than others, meaning even those living in the same habitat age at drastically different rates. This shifts the interaction of characters and allows for the direct influence of historical figures upon the present day—a technological approach to an immortality narrative that I’ve not seen executed with this level of artistry before. Also worth noting is the in-narrative timekeeping. The Qeng Ho calendar is so beautifully simple—based on seconds so it’s familiar while the base-10 system makes it unique. It makes sense to the spider culture that they’d keep time by generation, and their calendar is correspondingly more alien. Many world builders don’t mess with timekeeping but here it’s a detail that completes the constructed reality.
A Deepness in the Sky is an intellectual space opera—an epic undertaking, but ultimately well worth it for anyone with an interest in hard sci-fi. Vinge lets his world breathe, both in page space and in narrative. Around three centuries pass from the first spider chapter to the last; the Emergents and Qeng Ho spend some 40 years orbiting the OnOff star. This long-view approach is gutsy in a modern literary landscape that demands early hooks and quick action. The patient reader will find the payoff rewarding; the impatient reader will find it hard to escape the first few chapters without frustration.