Review of Vinge's Deepness in the Sky
Sat, 27 Feb 1999 22:02:24 -0800

Vernor Vinge's new novel, A Deepness in the Sky, is a prequel to his Hugo winning A Fire Upon the Deep. It takes place a few thousand years in our future.

I enjoyed the story, but it didn't seem to have as many topics of Extropian interest as some of Vinge's other work, such as Fire, or Marooned in Realtime. It gives more background on Pham Nuwen, one of the main characters in Fire, and on the Qeng Ho, the trading empire he was part of. The Zones of Thought are not mentioned, and we see their effects only indirectly.

With the entire story taking place in the Slow Zone, technology is capped at a level not too far above our own. Super-intelligence and even human level AI is impossible; software projects inevitably bog down in their own complexity before something as complex as human AI can be reached. Medical science allows people to live perhaps 300-500 years at most (although with cryonic suspension their lives can extend over much longer periods). Nanotech remains a dream which was never fulfilled.

Most civilizations are trapped in a cycle of boom and collapse, similar to Niven and Pournelle's Moties. The Qeng Ho help to moderate this effect somewhat as they carry technology between star systems in their ramscoop powered vessels. Earth itself has wiped itself out four times and been recolonized from outside.

All in all I found it a depressingly limited future.

As for the story itself, while it was engaging and exciting, there were disturbing elements. The bad guys are really nasty. In Fire, we saw the Straumli Perversion only at a distance. Characters like the Tine leader, Steel, were seen up close, and their lies and manipulation were more tangible. In Deepness we have characters similar to Steel, and we get exposed to their methods in far more detail. I had a sick feeling in my stomach for much of the story.

The aliens were a pleasant counterbalance to this. Although physically very different from us, Vinge presents them through a translation interface so high level that they are completely understandable and recognizable, and in fact utterly charming. I found that my mental image of the aliens was constantly shifting between humans and their actual physical form. The conflict between their alien and repellant physical appearance and their appealing emotional and mental states was felt by the characters as well, and it was interesting to experience the same thing as the reader. I could understand the ambiguous feelings people had towards the aliens, since I shared that same mixture of views.

A number of surprises pop up in the climax, and frankly I didn't quite understand everything that was going on. I still can't figure out how certain characters had crucial information and the ability to manipulate key systems. When more people have read the book maybe someone can explain it to me.

Overall, it's a good book and a long book. We know that Pham is going to survive, which helps when things are looking their darkest. The aliens are a lot of fun. But if you're looking for the kind of grand-scale ideas which Vinge provided in Fire, I don't think you'll find them here.