A Finite Future: Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky

I’ve written about Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky before. I’ve spoken of how it is masterfully written, with great aliens, fascinating story, and nifty cultures. What I don’t think I’ve said is how unusual it is to have a big space opera like this in a slower than light setting, and in a universe where technological progress turns out to be finite. It’s really unusual, and it’s especially unusual to have it explored in such detail — a large chunk of the book is about Pham setting up the Qeng Ho, the slower-than-light interstellar trading culture.

Discussion of the book, sort of spoilers but not specifically for anything plot-like.

Vinge came to write this book from his belief in the Singularity. Because he believes as he said in a recent interview on Tor.com:

Barring catastrophes such as world nuclear war, I’d be surprised if the Technological Singularity hasn’t happened by 2030. The enabling technologies of computation and communication seem to be going like gangbusters. By the way, I think my 1993 essay still does a good job of addressing many Singularity issues.

Now my computer seems dumber and more lacking in personality than my computer was in 1993, but that doesn’t matter. We don’t have to believe in the Singularity — I think it’s completely kooky, but never mind. Vinge really believes in the Singularity, and therefore in order to write SF where people are people and flying around in spaceships and having adventures, he has had to think hard about ways to avoid having it happen. He’s had to do this for the last twenty-five years, since Marooned in Realtime.

Working under this constraint led him to constructing one of the coolest universes ever, in the same way that poetic constraints led Frost to, “And would suffice” and Keats to, “Silent, upon a peak, in Darien.”

So, to avoid having everyone disappear in a Singularity and the end of all stories, Vinge came up with the fascinating universe of A Fire Upon the Deep (and the forthcoming Children of the Sky) in which there are superhuman alien transcended intelligences, post singularity intelligences, who have physically divided the galaxy up into geographically distinct regions with different physical rules. In the Beyond, where A Fire Upon the Deep takes place, you can have anti-gravity, human-equivalent AI, faster-than-light travel. Out in the Transcend where the post-Singularity intelligences are gods, you can have superhuman level AI and unimaginably fast computer networks across interstellar distances. And down in the Slow Zone, absolutely none of those things will physically work. In the Slow Zone AI and FTL and real nanotech are just flat out impossible.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, the human and alien characters don’t know why the superhuman and superaliens did this Partition — they have lots of surmises, but that’s all.

But from inside A Deepness in the Sky you can’t tell anything about the zones. To the characters of Deepness, the Slow Zone is just the universe, it’s the way things are. They’ve never been outside it. Pham dreams that there might be more in the core — which we know are the Unthinking Depths, where human level thought isn’t possible. We know, from the perspective of having read both books, that he’s going in the wrong direction but will end up in the Beyond anyway. We also know, or guess, that the “cavorite” the Spiders find is of Beyond origin, fuelled in some way by the periodicity of their star. But they don’t know where it comes from. They have all these civilizations, all this history, how could they guess?

For the way their tech works, Vinge has taken the idea of a “mature programming environment” and extrapolated it outwards to everything. Everything has layers built on layers, protocols built on protocols. I laughed when I read the professional designation “programmer-archaeologist” because I use Linux, and I’m married to someone whose answer to “How can we do this?” is often “I could write a perl script, but let me google to see if anyone has already done one.” Everything the Qeng Ho have is patched and refined and integrated and messed about with. The “localisers” Pham uses are very nearly magic tech — working with pulsed microwaves, giving a distributed network that can be controlled with thought — but this is the best anyone has ever achieved. They have medical advances, and cold sleep, and ramscoops — and that’s all they have and they’re never going to have anything else. No AI, no natural language translation, no uploading… because Vinge believes that would lead to a Singularity.

What they have is a universe desperate for incremental tech increases — but Vinge is clever enough to understand that what most people living in it want is to make a profit, make a living, to fall in love and have kids, to understand the new aliens. Most people accept the tech they have. Pham is driven — Pham has come from medieval Canberra and got to the best human tech has ever managed in the Slowness, and he wants more. He has a vision of an interstellar empire, and he has to give it up because the price is too high. But the other human characters are quite happy living where they find themselves, selling rocks to each other and getting rich, identifying with the Spiders.

Most of the plot of Deepness takes place on what’s essentially a “desert island”, a closed system — the Qeng Ho expedition and the Emergent expedition in orbit around the Spider planet. The two human cultures have only what they brought — and of that, only what survived the initial war. The Emergents are evil, and their incremental advance of Focus involves creepy mind-slavery — but Vinge does a very good job of showing them as people who want things, even while they’re monsters who accept horrors. He also shows them being “corrupted” by the black market of the conquered Qeng Ho.

The Spiders, especially Sherkaner, are the only characters who don’t accept the way the universe is. The Spiders, though alien, are more like us than the human characters in some ways. They’re having a technological explosion like the one we have had, and they haven’t yet run up against the limits of technology. All the human characters have lived for generations accepting these limits — Pham less than the others, and Pham is less content within them. The Spiders naturally believe that the Focused are AIs in revolt, happily accept anti-gravity, immediately imagine space as a safe enviroment for their future. They have the wide imagination of science fiction readers — while the human characters here have been forced to learn better. They call the things they can’t have “Failed Dreams,” and they are people from cultures who have lived with failed dreams for a long time.

One of the things SF can do is show you characters with different mindsets. Anyone can write a character whose dreams have failed. Vinge’s writing people from whole societies whose dreams have failed over millennia. And yet, this is a cheerful optimistic book in which awful things happen but good wins out. It’s only a tragedy from a perspective outside the book, where you know that there’s so much more they could have had and Pham is going the wrong way at the end.

It’s a brilliant book, one of the best, well worth reading again and again.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently 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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