So High, So Low, So Many Things to Know: Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky (1999) is set in the same universe and shares one character with A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) (post), but both books stand alone and their relationship to each other is one of added depth. There’s going to be a third book in that universe out in October this year, Children of the Sky. I can hardly wait.

A Deepness in the Sky is a science fiction novel set in a universe with only slower than light travel, where medical science has managed to extend human lifespan to about five hundred years, where computers are still running on a Unix core so “programmer-archaeologist” is an in-demand speciality, and where true artificial intelligence, nanotech, FTL and other staples of science fiction are known as the “Failed Dreams.” Nevertheless, humanity has made it off Earth and spread across much of the galaxy, and trading fleets move between the stars. Fleets from two civilizations converge at the astronomical anomaly of the On-Off star, a star that cycles, spending two hundred years dormant and then bursts back to life for thirty years of brightness. The On-Off star has a planet, and the planet has alien inhabitants, the two groups of humans have different agendas and the story is not just fascinating but absolutely unputdownable. This goes to 11 on the “I want to read it-osity” scale.

If you haven’t read it—look, just read it. It’s totally enjoyable, and besides, this is what science fiction is.

Spoilers starting right now.

I talked about Deepness here once before, and what I talked about then was the way it’s a tragedy if you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep and have seen the wider universe. So now I want to take that as read and talk about the other interesting things within the book, the Spiders, Focus, the history of the Qeng Ho, the nature of the universe, and the actual plot.

The spiders

There’s a difficult line to walk with aliens between making them too familiar and making them too alien. Vinge does wonderfully here by making them low-slung squat and spidery, with maws, eating-hands and the ability to hibernate, but culturally and technologically in many ways familiar. He gives them cute names like (Sherkaner Underhill, Victory Lighthill) and makes them so easy to identify with. They are just a little like dressed up animals in a children’s book, very easy to digest—and then he turns this inside out when the humans actually get down to the planet and meet them, and we discover that the translators have (for their own reasons) been making them seem nicer and easier to identify with on purpose. Their “nooks” are sinister chimneys with lairs at the top, their stairs are ladders, their bright airy rooms are dark and sinister. They are people, they are familiar, but they are also very alien. You can’t ever quite forget they are spider-aliens even in cute mode, but the revelation of how sinister they look to humans is very clever.

The whole thing of the translators and their agenda works very well.


The Emergents are one of the civilizations that make it to the On-Off star with their own agenda. Their edge is Focus, a psychoactive virus that can control brains and direct them, focus them, so that they care for nothing but their speciality. The Focused are just that little bit more monomanaical than the worst monomaniac you’ve ever met, and they can be tuned to be Focused on automation or piloting or translation so that they’ll ignore everything and keep working on it. Up close we see a Focused park designer and a Focused translator. The people who are Focused, called “zipheads” are unquestionably slaves. The Emergents have three planets controlled this way.

We see them first from outside, from the Qeng Ho point of view, but as the book goes on we start to get Emergent viewpoints—Tomas Nau and Ritser Breughel, who are villains, and Trud Silipan and Jau Xin who are Emergents just trying to live their lives. We never get inside the head of the zipheads, but we see a lot of Trixia Bonsol from the outside. Trixia is from Triland, and she’s the girlfriend of Ezr Vinh, a minor Qeng Ho heir. We see a lot of ziphead Trixia from Ezr’s point of view. What we don’t see if Trixia’s own point of view, and how she is in contact with the spiders and with an agenda of her own. The first time I read the book it took me utterly by surprise—and even on re-reading, it’s completely hidden. The only clue requires knowing what “steganography” means, and even now I’m not sure how the two-way communication was managed. Oh well.

One very interesting thing about Focus is that in online discussions after the book came out, many people said that if it was voluntary and reversible they’d absolutely use it. But it’s very easy to see how it automatically becomes a tool of repression—from people using it voluntarily to do better work to employers only being prepared to hire people who’ll use it “voluntarily.”

Focus is evil, but Pham Nuwen finds it seductive because it gives an edge he’s always wanted and makes interstellar empire possible.

The History of the Qeng Ho

We’re told there’s an interstellar slower than light civilization, and we’re shown some of it in flashback. The actual novel is essentially a locked room—the Emergents and the Qeng Ho and the Spiders are all trapped at On-Off, nobody leaves and nobody else arrives. The only time we see the rest of the civilization is in Pham’s memories, which move through the book giving us his lifestory in extended flashbacks. I love this, partly because it gets away from the claustrophobic situation in the space around the On-Off star, and partly because it’s just extremely nifty—Plam’s dream is empire, and on the way to that he develops the Qeng Ho with their broadcasting information and standards to help fallen civilizations recover and be better customers. We see several two civilizations that are at absolute peaks, where there’s nowhere to go, because technology can’t advance and every resource is being used and there’s no flexibility left. This is fascinating speculation, and it’s not much like anything else as most people assume constant technological progress. This expands and enhances the book.

The Nature of the Universe

I don’t much care for the idea of the Singularity for reasons laid out in the post I’m linking to there, but Vinge himself has been inspired to write brilliant things within the constraints it imposes, the same way that sonnet form simultaneously constrains and frees. Vinge believes that if we had nanotech and good computers and so on, the “failed dreams” we would have a singularity and become godlike. So he developed his “zones” universe so he could write about people who hadn’t had that. In A Fire Upon the Deep he does a set of fascinating things with that. Here he does a different set of fascinating things, and this STL universe with traders is one of them, and I love it.

Also, from wider knowledge from A Fire Upon the Deep, we can guess that Arachna and the On-Off star is a probe to the depths and the diamond fora and everything is decayed tech, and the star going on and off much be what’s powering the “cavorite” and so on. We know it dims the stars to do zone-stuff. They probably didn’t expect the spiders to evolve or civilizations from the slowness to poke at it. But will the better FTL and cavorite work away from that system?

The actual plot

It’s easy to get caught up in talking about the other things about this book, but I want to note that the actual plot is extremely exciting. Vinge manages to pull off multiple strands—the spider POV, all the human POVs—and juggle them so it’s all consistently interesting and all builds up to an astonishingly exciting climax where everything happens at once and you can’t put it down for hundreds of pages together. Tomas Nau is a great villain, and Pham is a great hero, and Ezr and Qiwi are good people trying to do what they can against awful odds, and the spiders are lovable.

I like this book for all kinds of defensible rational reasons, but what I’d most like to say in conclusion is how much I enjoy reading it. It’s fun on all sorts of levels at the same time, in a way that not very much else is.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out on January 18th, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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