A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge

Tor, 1999, 606 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85683-0

For some reason, I was one of the few people not overly impressed by Vernor Vinge’s previous novel, the 1992 Hugo-award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep. Epic space opera, yes, but constantly focused on the wrong narrative threads: The poor humans stuck on the backward planet rather than the all-out galactic war taking place around them. But that was then, and now is A Deepness in the Sky. Deepness is widely hailed as “the prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep”, but is really so thinly linked that it’s best read as a stand-alone volume. (Though the symmetry of the pair is intriguing.)

Two human expeditions arrive around a star with the interesting property of cyclically “shutting off” at precise intervals. They discover a planet whose indigenous inhabitants (“Spiders”) are on the verge of attaining space-flight technology. Problem is, the two human expeditions come from radically different societies. One is composed of traders, the other is based on intellectual slavery. Before long, the expeditions are fighting it out in orbit. After the brief skirmish, both camp find out that they can’t travel back to their home systems and that they won’t survive unless they combine their resources. And so the survivors from both camps settle down warily, waiting until the Spiders can provide them with the way to go back home… a prospect at least thirty years away.

There can be no mistaking that A Deepness in the Sky is pure science-fiction, at least not if you accept the proposition that “SF is about the effects of technological change”. Vinge lovingly details the Spider’s technological progress, using this subplot as a convenient excuse to make some sociological comments on the place of technology on human progress. Though the book is only moderately high on ideas, Vinge’s extrapolation hold some interest. (His digression on multi-generational legacy code held special interest for this IT professional.)

Vinge also uses a neat trick (which I won’t spoil) to anthropomorphize a basically alien species. Though the use of “cars”, “telephones” and other typically human terms may annoy some readers, it’s a great device to humanize an entire segment of the cast.

Which, unfortunately, doesn’t really solve the question as to if these alien subplots should have been kept in the novel. If A Deepness in the Sky is a pure-SF novel with fascinating bits and intriguing aliens, it’s a shame that it’s so long and bloated. Wordiness kills a large part of the novel’s momentum, so that even if the first few hundred pages contain massive space battles, the book doesn’t get moving until the mid-point mark. Make no mistake: A Deepness in the Sky is well written, but it’s well over-written too. The characters are worthwhile, but they’re not easily approachable.

Fortunately, when the book starts moving, it really starts to be interesting. Vinge manages his threads effectively, and his extended conclusion effectively completes the story.

While assuredly one of the front-runners in this year’s SF crop and definitively worth your money in paperback, A Deepness in the Sky nevertheless fails at provoking enthusiasm. Slowed down by a deliberate prose and longish subplots, this novel joins the ranks of recent books that could have been improved by some serious editing. This caveat aside, don’t miss what is easily one of the best recent examples of a simple yet epic SF story well-told through the personal struggles of full characters.

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