Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Vernor Vinge - A Deepness Upon the Sky

So high, so low, so many things to know. (p. 775)

A Deepness in the Sky is the prequel to his fantastic, Hugo winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep. But unlike most prequels, A Deepness in the Sky doesn't blandly putter about the backdrop or spend its time retconning with sledgehammer subtlety. Though we are exploring Pham Nuwen's history, we're doing so in a fashion far enough removed from the earlier (/chronologically later) novel that A Deepness in the Sky has space to become its own story. In fact, the closest connection between the two is thematic, with A Deepness in the Sky presenting a claustrophobic counterpoint to the mind-boggling expanses of its predecessor.

A Deepness in the Sky is a book of humanity constrained. By the time of its occurrence, humankind has grown far beyond what we can now imagine, but true greatness – the ends of misery and suffering, the permanence of civilization and justice – remain out of reach, nothing more than impossibilities and "Failed Dreams" (p. 323). We've learned much through all these thousands of future years, but mainly we've learned of limits (p. 770). Unable to go beyond the speed of light, no culture can survive between planets and systems, and so planetary civilizations rise and fall. At the height they're wonderful things, but there is so much darkness. (p. 770) No matter how great a civilization may grow, it cannot be eternal. A Fire Upon the Deep showed a path of potential and nigh endless ascension, of mobility and transcendence if only one could overcome the dangers. A Deepness in the Sky, taking place entirely within what that other novel would call the Slow Zone, has the rises and falls without the possibility of growth or apotheosis. It shows humanity endlessly struggling against the "wheel of time" (323) and humanity being endlessly broken upon it. 

It is this inevitability that the outsider, planet-born Pham Nuwen strives against. He dreams of a single Humankind, where justice would not be occasional flickering light, but a steady glow across all of Human Space. He dreamed of a civilization where continents never burned. (pp. 556-7) Motivated by that dream, Nuwen approaches the disparate Qeng Ho trading culture and tries to meld them into a unifying force. But his dreams prove impossible. Mere organization is not enough; humankind is fundamentally outmatched by time and space.

Outmatched within its own boundaries, that is, for the novel's main action takes place far past the establishment of this cycle of rises and falls, takes place as humankind reaches something utterly alien: the On/Off star (which emits no heat at all for 215 of every 250 years) and, on the one planet that orbits it, the Spiders, a nonhuman technological race. Then there's the fact that the Qeng Ho expedition to this star is not the only one. The Emergents have also arrived, a disparate human civilization that possesses its own dark secrets and strengths. 

After their so ominous introduction, it's not that surprising when the Emergents prove villainous and betray the Qeng Ho they'd pretended to coexist with. The Qeng Ho expedition must not only struggle to survive under the Emergent's tyranny but also, in Pham Nuwen's case, struggle to find a way to finally overcome the necessity of these endless and unwinnable life and death struggles. Nuwen, though, is not the only one striving.

Nuwen's counterpart in the space borne part of the story is Tomas Nau, the Emergent's leader, who has reached his own solution with the aid of Focus, an Emergent science that allows once-free individuals to be turned into hyper efficient slaves. This transcendence through cruelty is efficient, allowing not only short term miracles but also the long term coordination and stability that would be needed to truly enact the kind of justice and greatness throughout space that Nuwen envisions. But, though he's initially drawn to use of the Focused, Nuwen eventually realizes that the cost is too high and that any utopia created with such inhumanity at its center is not worthy of its own immortality.

The far opposite of Nau's practicality only approach might be Sherkaner Underhill's. Sherkaner's one of the sentient spider-like creatures that the whole story revolves around, but his role isn't that of a prize passively sitting by while his betters fight over him. No, Sherkaner's busy with his mad ideas, playing the role of the resident and eccentric mad genius, spouting out a thousand flights of brilliancy and fancy a second and then moving on before they're all the way out of his mouth, a tireless flirting around what might just be possible without ever letting the difficulties of reality in, a job that falls those around him to face in order to make use of his mind.

It is, eventually, something like Sherkaner's method that triumphs. No matter how well meaning or ruthless we are, Vinge shows us that we alone are not enough to triumph over time, fate, and inevitability. No, for that we need technology and an endless search for what is possible. In the end, the On/Off star doesn't give Pham Nuwen the answers, but it does show him that answers are not impossible, and, as readers of A Fire Upon the Deep know, that is eventually enough to get him (and all of us?) the rest of the way. As Nuwen himself puts it, "We've finally found something from outside all our limits. It's a tiny glimpse, shreds and drags of brightest glory." (p. 770)

Tying into all this is actually the question of classification. I've seen A Deepness in the Sky often called Hard Science Fiction. That's, well, rather bizarre. Let me remind you, oh venerable and impossible to pin down internet classifiers, that this is a novel that contains a star that turns itself off every once in a while and genuine antigravity, to name just the two most obvious case-breakers. My point here goes beyond simple quibbling with genres, though. A Deepness in the Sky is not a work grounded in the current trends of scientific thought, and one could go so far as to say that that's the entire point of it. This is not a novel about what we know, but rather about what we don't know, and Vinge is damn careful throughout to divorce it from the strict boundaries of 21st century plausibility. As such, and making full use of Clarke's third law and all that goes with it, Vinge makes frequent references to the "magic" of such incomprehensible things things, be they the On/Off star (p. 197), the previous and inconceivably advanced prior dwellers on Arachna (p. 254), or even Focus technology (p. 294). There's even a mention of the Weird (which, though this is certainly not Horror in either its methods or its mindset, is a rather related field) in the form of a reference to your typical Cthulhonic horror (p. 297).

But, my thousand plus word reveling in Vinge's fascinating thematic arc now past, there's also a story here, and, though I've no doubt done my inadvertent best to convince you otherwise with all my blathering, it's not a pretentious one at all. At its best, it's fantastic. Vinge plots like a hunting hound given flight, free to go anywhere he can imagine and downright damned if he won't explore ever interesting nook, cranny, and consequence of what he's dreamed up. But there are flaws, too, and some are, alas, quite grievous. In my review of A Fire Upon the Deep, I said that "Vinge’s characters, and even his plots, are well overshadowed by his ideas" and that "once just about all’s explained and understood […] a bit of the excitement leaves the affair." In A Deepness in the Sky, we, alas, reach that point far sooner, a likely result of the novel being far more stationary, with much less stage space, and so running out of new and totally out there sights to throw at us far sooner. Once that point's reached, and with the exception of Pham Nuwen's flashbacks, things are up to the plotting and the characters. And things don't go nearly as well.

Once its fantastic opening is done, and once we've settled into its middle section, A Deepness in the Sky proceeds to trudge along for a truly incredible amount of time. There is a climax coming, of course, but we know roughly what shape it'll take from a quarter or a third of the way through, and the vast majority of the character's actions aren't so much bringing it about as they are talking about what they'll do when it hits them of its own volition. This idle and often almost eventless pacing is highlighted by the timescale. Years and years pass over the novel's course, which just seems to turn the character's profitless determination and motionless enthusiasm into, well, nothing at all. Then there's the bewildering way that so many of the novel's intermediate game changers happen entirely off screen and are only alluded to in passing. This is bad aboard the ships, where we spend the majority of our time, but is far worse on the Spiders' world of Arachna, where gaps and skips leave the villain developing somewhere totally out of view and inconsequential feeling and, because of it, undefined by anything but uninteresting blanket statements like Whatever was evil, Pedure was very good at it. (p. 583)

Characters in general prove, if not a problem, not exactly a strength. Like in A Fire Upon the Deep, they're wholly ruled by the forces around them, but here there are long periods where none of those forces are particularly evident and we're left with not much but the characters themselves sitting around. Vinge is decent at creating believable and realistic individuals, but, whether by design or by virtue of falling short, the reader never comes to grow close to any of them. This works for characters like Pham Nuwen and Sherkaner Underhill, both of which are too much larger than life and to scheming to serve as easy points of reader identification, but it does end up leaving the work without any real emotional center, with a bunch of characters that make certainly well realized minor characters but none that the reader ever truly lives through.

Despite these flaws, though, A Deepness in the Sky is a stunning and expansive read. It's not quite as breathtaking or simply excellent as its predecessor, but it still does show off Vinge's skill and imagination, still stretches out and smashes (delightful!) holes in your imagination. Though A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky are separate enough to be read individually, their combined effect shows both the possibilities for greatness and for disaster in the author's vision of the future, and each is a daring and powerful work of Science Fiction. Put in order, the two show a probable arc for technology's progress. Most of this novel is a seemingly endless stagnation that follows that technology's brief arrival, but just because the answers are hard to find does not mean that they are not there, and Vinge seems sure that technology will eventually able us to succeed at our most fundamental goals.


  1. I had a lot of difficulty in actually finishing this book, and ended up skimming most of the last 200 pages or so.

    The Pham Nuwen back-story, where he travels across the stars with the Qeng Ho and plans his empire, greatly overshadowed the main storyline. Greatest of all was the tone that Vinge managed to capture - he managed to make a civilization spread across dozens of worlds, with regular interstellar travel actually seem claustrophobic, something I've never seen another author pull off in SF.

  2. I agree without a doubt; Pham Nuwen's backstory was by far the most effective part of this.