Jan 11 2011 3:05pm

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

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge 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.

Paul Eisenberg
1. HelmHammerhand
Jo, you've just broken the news to me about "Children of the Sky" and have made my day. These are some of my favorite books ever!
Admiral Ackbar
2. Admiral Ackbar
Didn't the university / princeton stuff make the spiders seem too human? I couldn't get over that.
Admiral Ackbar
3. Mike G.
I loved AFUTD, but I bounced off of this book. I'll have to try it again.

Any other Vinge works on your to-be-reviewed stack? I enjoyed all his other novels, but it's always fun to see someone else's take on a book.
Admiral Ackbar
4. Foxessa
I too love these books, despite the deep itch to edit out about 100 pp. worth in this one.

Love, C.
Paul Eisenberg
5. HelmHammerhand
Mike - I just finished Tatja Grimm's World. Not his best, but some interesting ideas there. In fact, that's one of my favorite things about Vinge - his ideas. Rainbow's End rivals Deepness and Fire in awesomeness, tho. Jo, I'd love to see your takes on those books too!
Robert Evans
6. bobsandiego
I adored this book. The Focus was so utterly evil it was the only time in reading a novel that I wanted to wipe out a civilization. It was truly truly frightening.
I also had a chance to tell Verner that his book had made me sick to my stomach. As in I get motion sick reading ona bus but I could not stop reading this while I was riding. LOL
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
Didn't know about the 3rd one either. Thanks! Hmm, sounds like a good excuse to re-read Deepness.
Admiral Ackbar
8. Henry Farrell
I liked the book a lot - but also found the preachy libertarian politics quite annoying. The repeated suggestion that Tomas Nau's nasty exploitative civilization is the ineluctable end-result of redistributive liberalism really got on my nerves in ways that the writing of others who have strongly right-wing political opinions (e.g. Gene Wolfe) did not.
Mike Scott
9. drplokta

There's at least one more clue to the Counterlurk. Ezr is visiting Trixia and we get the following:

“J-just one thing more, Trixia. Something you should know.” Maybe something you can finally understand. “You are not a machine. You’re a human being.”

But the words had no impact. Maybe she didn’t even hear them. Her fingers were tapping at her keys again, and her gaze was somewhere in huds imagery he couldn’t see. Ezr waited several seconds, but whatever attention there had been seemed to have vanished. He sighed, and moved back to the cell’s doorway.

Then perhaps ten or fifteen seconds after he had spoken, Trixia abruptly looked up. There was expression on her face again, but this time it was surprise. “Really? I’m not a machine?”
It's already been established at this point that the human habitat is about five light-seconds away from the planet, so this is a pretty blatant (in retrospect) hint that Trixia is acting as a conduit for someone on the planet, who thinks he's interacting with an automated translation device.
Del C
10. del
Completely agree with Henry. Vinge so perfectly described an aristocracy who use the work of lower classes to keep themselves and their heirs in power and luxury, while keeping the workers in cheap filth and squalor, that trying to call the system "collective" kept breaking this reader out of the narrative to go "Wait, what? Vinge, cut it out with your obsessions!"  I couldn't believe in Tomas Nau as a real character, rather than a puppet speaking the author's lines, whenever he appeared to sincerely believe he was acting for the equal good of a society of equals. 
Admiral Ackbar
11. Michael B Sullivan
Helm: It's Rainbows End, not Rainbow's End. There's even a chapter called "The Missing Apostraphe"!

Ackbar: Did you get to the end of the book, where they point out that the translators for the spiders went to considerable efforts to cutesy them up and make them familiar to the humans? That's the point of the university/princeton thing.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Henry: I'm hardly a right winger, but that's not what I took from that at all. It just seemed like typical American "capitalism is wonderful" to me. And the Emergents have a hereditary aristocracy of Podmasters -- hardly liberal.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Michael: He doesn't seem to have read the paragraph in this post where I made that very point.
Paul Eisenberg
14. HelmHammerhand
Michael, I'm typically an inappropriate apostrophe Nazi. And I remember that chapter. One of my favorite albums is Frank Zappa's Apostrophe'. You get the idea: "Oops."

Henry and Del, one of my favorite things about SF is its ability to transcend modern events - I didn't see Nau's society as analogous to liberalism, though some of his ideas served to make him a bit more well rounded as a character - not just completely evil.
I'm a big fan of Vinge's work, and never have seen him as a "right wing" writer. Sure, there's some libertarian ideas in his work, but Vinge's work is full of ideas of many kinds. It's what I like about him.
Admiral Ackbar
15. Bradford DeLong
I protest! The title of the new book must be "The Sky Under the Fire"!

It cannot, cannot, cannot be any other way!
Admiral Ackbar
16. Bradford DeLong
Re: "I liked the book a lot - but also found the preachy libertarian politics quite annoying. The repeated suggestion that Tomas Nau's nasty exploitative civilization is the ineluctable end-result of redistributive liberalism really got on my nerves in ways that the writing of others who have strongly right-wing political opinions (e.g. Gene Wolfe) did not."

Hmmm... I usually get hives when exposed to preachy libertarian politics. But this time it went right by me. And a look back at the twentieth century produces villains very like Tomas Nau and Ritser Brueghel...
Madeline Ferwerda
17. MadelineF
Apologies if I've said this piece here before. For me, Deepness was the book that crystalized my distaste for Vernor Vinge's writing. The RAPE, guys.

Around then I got to thinking, so, his only major female character, who hasn't done anything much, exists to demonstrate that the Evil Bad Guy is *really* Evil...

From there, a wildfire chain. Wait, all his bad guys are Completely Evil and usually also Rapists. Wait, his female characters are passed out like "you won" chips to the protagonists, who are always male, living in worlds men do the useful things.

Then I stopped cutting him slack for the ways his plots require people to be holding the Idiot Ball, like the way the Evil Bad Guys take control in this book, or the kids in Fire Upon the Deep. I stopped cutting him slack for his Single Noble Male who Fights Singlehandedly For Truth.

And what's left? Some fine ideas and well-put-together writing that would probably make a good book if it was written by someone without his authorial kinks. I hope I live to see the day that people look back on this the same way that today we're looking back on _Stranger in a Strange Land_.

I think, in the past 50 years, science fiction has gotten better than this.
Admiral Ackbar
18. Stefan Jones
I enjoyed "Deepness" a lot, but didn't fall head-over-heels in love with it the way I did "A fire Upon the Deep."

The politics bothered me a little, but it was far from enough to ruin the book for me. I didn't find it offensive, the way I now find (say) "Oath of Fealty" offensive.

* * *
I actually got to hear a little about this book straight from Vinge a year or two before it came out. A friend and I "rescued" him from a dreadful meet-the-pros "cyberbar" event at an SF convention of which we were alumni members. We retreated to the green room and had an amazing Things Of Which Geek Dreams Are Made conversation. Role playing games, the bandwidth of Tine communication, Doc Smith . . . great fun. And the next day we did Mongolian BBQ!
Admiral Ackbar
19. Gorbag
Vinge is good at turning things on their head. For ages after reading it, I'd let the Spiders' color "plaid" slip by me, until I remembered that the color "brown" isn't a wavelength; it's more a perceived texture of red, "black", and several other tones rather than a shade.

See? Human like me!
Per Jorgensen
20. percj
I remember seeing several comments on rec.arts.sf.written about how Vinge's portrayal of the civilisation using the Focus virus was a slur on left-wing politics, but I must admit that when I read the book, I rather thought of mid-20th century fascism. Furthermore, over here in Europe, the eastern half of the continent lived under rulers that both spoke warmly of the collective and enjoyed special privileges themselves, such as retreats in the countryside with a permanent servant staff, so it is not exactly like this is without real-world precedent.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Madeleine: While there aren't any human female characters with a huge role other than victim here, there are plenty of proactive spider ones. And in AFUTD, Ravna and Joanna (and Woodcarver, and Greenshell) are important and have agency. I don't think Vinge is writing books that are going to win the Tiptree, but I think you're exaggerating.
David Dyer-Bennet
22. dd-b
MadelineF, I remember the main good characters in AFUTD as being female; nothing like what you remember from the book.

And "libertarian" grows much more from the left than from the right, philosophically. It's about the value and rights of individual humans, which is VERY MUCH not the subject matter of the right!
Admiral Ackbar
23. Jeff R.
Bradford: I personally thought that then next book had to be either "The Height of the Ground" or "A Ghostliness in the Earth". (Depending on how one interprets "having the properties of Sky" into a single word) But I was imagining a four-book cycle here.
Admiral Ackbar
24. Raskos
...Vinge's portrayal of the civilisation using the Focus virus was a slur on left-wing politics...

How odd - I wonder how anyone got around to that. The Emergents really sounded like modern managerial-class types to me - it was a bit like reading about what kind of a world MBAs would produce, given the option. Closer to fascism than anything else, I guess.
Admiral Ackbar
26. Gorbag
corrigendum vis above: the color word used in the book is "paisley" ...

meanwhile, back in the temp, Focus is actually a very subtle and clever satire on the way Western "civilization" has made use of its scientific and technical traits to give scientists and technicians what they most desire - unlimited access to material relating to their Focus - while taking their "soul".

You don't think that a Free Trader programmer-teacher like Vinge wouldn't notice how his students were being turned into corporate drones for an oppressive military-industrial complex, do you?

... you paisley skunks ...
Admiral Ackbar
27. Bradford DeLong
There is a third clue to the Counterlurk:

>He reached out to Smith, the tremor in his head and arms more pronounced than ever. "There has to be a way to find them. There has to be. I have computers, and the microwave link to Lands Command." All the resources that had served him so well in the past. "I can get them back safely. I know I can."
Smith was very still for a moment. Then she moved close to him, laid on arm across Sherk's shoulders, caressing his fur. her voice was soft and stern, almost like a soldier bracing another about lost comrades. "No, dear. You can only do so much"...

Smith is ordering him not to use Trixia to solve the crime. There is no "almost like": it is "exactly like."
Del C
28. del
All the commenters protesting that the Emergents didn't look like left-wingers at all in Vinge's narrative are missing that I said that. It's the fact that the narrative showed a classic society of a powerful few using everyone else as their slaves, that made Vinge's assertion (and insertion into internal monologues of the users themselves) of "collectivism" so jarring to read. That's what jerked me out of the narrative. 
Admiral Ackbar
29. DaveL618
There seemed to me to be more than two (or three...) clues to the CounterLurk. For example, I remember repeated worries on the part of Thomas Nau and his henchmen that the translators were getting too close to the Spiders. This was (to me) a classic Chekhovian gun on the mantlepiece.

As for whether the Emergents were left or right, given that we have had authoritarians and totalitarians claiming to be both and producing nearly identical outcomes in the societies they rule in the last century (at least), it's no more shocking to me to see the Emergent society called "collectivism" than to see dictators call themselves "President" these days instead of "King." (FWIW, I saw the Emergents as being more fascist than collectivist, as we understand those terms today.)
Admiral Ackbar
30. eyelessgame
Loved the book. I found the libertarianism only slightly annoying; an SF author is permitted to make counterfactual social science just like he's permitted to make counterfactual computer science or physical science, and play 'what if' games with it.

Yes, there is a major political angle to Focus, and yes, libertarians tend to confuse everything that isn't libertarian with totalitarian - you expect that like you expect a Russian novel to be depressing. But the book is great nevertheless.
I found Focus to be less a satire on any social construct than a visceral take on such neural abnormalities as stroke and autism - non-neurotypicality with which I have some significant experience through loved ones.
Madeline Ferwerda
31. MadelineF
bluejo @21: My memory of the spider female characters is mostly of the main one, who seemed to spend a lot of time clearing the way for her man to do stuff with her prettiness and her sauciness. But it has been quite awhile since I read Deepness.

I'll grant you exaggeration; perhaps if I went through all of Vinge's books with a chart, the 2/7 I remember for a fact having rape as just a thing to show the evil guy as evil would be the end of the list, and perhaps active female characters would do as well. Certainly it's not like Zelazny's "is there a wiseass (immortal) guy" tic. But the odiousness of the tic has a large impact... And I'd say we're better these days in SF than "does not have throwaway rape, has agency in the ladies = Tiptree winnar".
Admiral Ackbar
32. SFBookclub
My Science Fiction Bookclub will be discussing A Deepness in the Sky on Monday 11th July 2011 in central London, England. Any and all are welcome but places are limited.


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