Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Published: 1999 (Tor Books)
Series: Book 2 of Zones of Thought
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke, Locus SF, and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: Campbell, Hugo, and Prometheus Awards

The Book:

“Representatives of two human civilizations have come to explore the system of the mysterious “OnOff star”, which rekindles for only 35 of every 250 years.  The first are the Qeng Ho, a far-flung and loose-knit starfaring society of traders. The second are the Emergents, an empire whose power rests on the backs of the “focused”, humans whose minds and bodies are enslaved to serve the higher castes.  They both see the planet orbiting the OnOff star as a source of potential wealth, so cooperation between two groups with such drastically different ideologies may be impossible.

The other players in this tale are the inhabitants of the planet--a sentient spider-like species that goes dormant for each long darkness of their sun.  Their society develops as the humans lurk out of sight, and what role they might play is the least predictable element in human schemes many decades in the making.” ~Allie

I chose to read this book because I generally like Vernor Vinge, it received many awards, and I also enjoyed A Shadow Upon the Deep (which I read before I began this blog).

My Thoughts:

It’s a really big coincidence that I ended up reading two books about sentient spider civilizations relatively close together (this one and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time), especially given my strong aversion to spiders. However, the two books take very different approaches to spider civilization.  Tchaikovsky developed his spider civilization based on non-sentient spider behavior and the strengths and limitations of their biology.  Vinge, on the other hand, heavily anthropomorphized his spiders (explicitly so, through the translation of the human characters). The first approach highlights the differences and natural revulsion between humans and spiders, while the second approach aims to make the spiders seem approachable and familiar.  The one way this backfired for me was just that the spiders didn’t initially feel very alien--and I like societies that feel alien--so it didn’t catch my interest right away.  On the other hand, it also made it a lot easier to build emotional attachment to the spider characters.

As the story progresses, the reader sees more of the spider culture and how it is shaped by their environment.  The activity of the OnOff star makes for an unusual planet, where every living thing has to go dormant for hundreds of years on each off-cycle.  It was interesting to see the significance their culture attached to the cycles, and to see how the particular challenges of their world would influence the direction of their scientific progress.  I really like seeing fictional societies develop science, so this part of the story was a lot of fun. On the other side, there are also two unusual spacefaring human societies to learn about. This part played more or less like horror for me, since we were seeing a clash between a society that valued human rights, and one that was built on a foundation of slavery and mind control.

The spiders’ story seemed to move at a pretty rapid pace, but the human story was a tense and claustrophobic game of intrigue that played out slowly.  Both groups had a lot to gain and a lot to lose, and both were planning to get their way through careful manipulation. This long game also allowed for time to develop and explore the main characters and their histories, and I enjoyed learning about them and seeing parts of Qeng Ho history they’d lived through. There were some bits of the story that were really disturbing to read (violence, sexual violence, the idea of focus), but these parts were always portrayed as horrific.  All in all, it was a story with very clear good guys and bad guys, and I was satisfied with how everything came out in the end.

My Rating: 4.5/5

A Deepness in the Sky is an exciting far-future story of space-faring human civilizations as well as an interesting arachnid-like alien culture.  The story involves the technological development of the arachnid society on a planet that revolves a star which mysteriously turns on and off within a regular 250 cycle.   The represented human societies include one that values free trade, and another that values mind control and slavery, so it is always obvious which side is the ‘bad guys’. The spiders’ story was one of scientific discovery and adventure, while the human story was one of fear, careful schemes, and long-term manipulation.  Everything comes together very well in the end, making this yet another Vinge novel that I have enjoyed reading.

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