Wed
Sep 28 2011 2:00pm

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.

12 comments
Alan Stallings
1. astacvi
I have not read A Fire upon the Deep in some time, and I have yet to finish Deepness due to moving. That said, I do not at all recall the Zones being an imposed order, but rather a natural feature of the universe. I remember them being manipulated somehow, but don't recall that they were an invention.

Can someone set me straight on this point?
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
From the point of view of those in the beyond on down they appear natural, but there are hints that the Transcend Players had something to do with it. Certainly, the ending of Fire implies manipulation being possible and I think that Vinge has stated so somewhere.
William S. Higgins
3. higgins
Vinge has considered means other than merely building smarter computers for enhancing the power of intelligent beings.

The fictional "Focus" is itself related to Vinge's speculations on the Singularity: what if, through drugs or other techniques, humans could bring the full intensity of their intelligence to bear on a particular problem, free of distractions?

(And the 1993 article, while not his earliest writing on the Singularity, is certainly a good summary of his ideas.)

Even Vinge's early 1966 story, "Bookworm, Run!" is connected to the Singularity, because it explores another plausible enhancement of intelligence: the bookworm protagonist is a whose mental radio link to a computer gives him abilities far beyond his un-enhanced talents.
Ian Rapley
4. Alfonso Baronso
Funny coincidence - i just finished this a week or two ago, inspired by (i think) either the Hugos articles or another of your posts on it, Jo, but decided not to bump an old thread.

I thought that the world building - the Qeng Ho and the Spiders' adaption to the world of the On-Off star - was amazing, and the meeting of the two aliens was done brilliantly. However, despite this great backstory, I was aware from about 1/2 way through that I wasn't really _enjoying_ the book much.

For me there was too much tech to be really gripping (has any book ever used the word automation more?), and I found the two main characters uninteresting (Ezr) and unlikeable (Pham). Qiwi had the most interesting potential for me, but the plot ensures that we can't see into her head more than once.

I'm sure I'll read A Fire upon the Deep because the ideas in that sound, if anything, even better than the background to this one. Hopefully it'll have a bit more of whatever mojo it was that was missing for me in this.
Petar Belic
5. Petar Belic
Everyone reads differently. For me, Pham Nuwen is a very interesting character who I can empathize with, and liked a lot. Ezr less so, but I got to like him a lot more as we went along. About 1/2 through the book I realised I would not be able to put it down!

I would like to point out something from the review: "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."

I didn't get that from my read at all. The periodicy of the star wasn't mentioned in respect to the cavorite, or even implied. Was it?

Many ideas in Jo's article are actually more related to A Fire Upon the Deep, ie, the transcendent's direct involvment in zonographic partitioning.

Here's to The Children of the Sky not answering all the milieu's mysteries!
Petar Belic
6. AlBrown
Not as much fun as the Blabber or Fire Upon the Deep, but a very good book. I think it is because it is a little more thoughtful, and a little more dark than the other stories set in the Zones of Thought. I suspect the Singularity is further in our future than Mr. Vinge thinks it will occur, but think that his point does have validity, and at some point in the future, there will be so many changes in how we live and perceive things, that folks from the past wouldn't recognize us. While I can read and enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, I suspect that I might have more trouble with an adventure set as far in the future as that story is set in the past.
Wesley Parish
7. Aladdin_Sane
As a programmer of sorts: how many languages can one write FORTRAN in? and someone who can get obsessive about matters that fascinate me, I find "Focus" is actually a hothouse-forced version of my natural habits. It's something done to one, instead of being a natural habit, so naturally it is enslavement of a rather intrusive sort.

Read The Jargon File for an in-depth look into this sort of thing; also Steven Levy's book "The Hackers" . I never knew that there were others who could pick up a set of books on say neuroscience, in-depth third-year books, and at the end of three months, have the equivalent knowledge of a four-year BSc in Neuroscience - but that is what Eric S. Raymond says is normal for a certain subset of humanity in The Jargon Files , aka in dead tree form as The New Hacker's Dictionary, edited by Eric S. Raymond.
Petar Belic
8. a1ay
The periodicy of the star wasn't mentioned in respect to the cavorite, or even implied. Was it?

Not specifically, but the star's definitely mentioned as being non-natural; I think Pham speculates that it used to be an artificial square-wave generator that is gradually running down (and its period becoming longer and longer). Earlier, the frequency was higher, which makes sense from an evolutionary point of view; over evolutionary time the "winters" when the sun was dark got longer and colder, and Spiders and others had to evolve to hibernate in more and more extreme ways. Life couldn't have arisen de novo on the Spiders' world as it is at the time of the novel.

1,2 - The Zones of Thought idea - AFOTD definitely mentions that they have not always been there, but were imposed in an "ur-Partition" about five billion years ago, and there's speculation that this was in response to the Blight's previous appearance. And, obviously, they can be manipulated.
Interestingly, there's also a mention of similar structures in other galaxies.

The novel that it reminds me most strongly of - and I wonder whether this was intentional - is the Zones in Alastair Reynolds' "Terminal World", where changes in the fine structure of space mean that different areas have different permissible technologies.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Children of the Sky review coming soon.

And yes, the cavorite etc being powered by the On/Off nature of the star is a deduction.
lake sidey
10. lakesidey
Ooh, Children of the Sky review! Can hardly wait :) This is a universe worth re-visiting, again and again.

@4 I quite liked Pham. Partly because he is often unlikeable in his thoughts - he is not a "hero" hero, but a very real one who we can identify with, facing temptations and having to beat them down (rather than the morally pure guy who never even gets tempted - one likes that type, but can one really identify with them?). YMMV of course!

~lakesidey
C Smith
11. C12VT
It's been some years since I read this, and looking back what stuck with me most is Focus. How many people would choose to be "focused", if they could control it rather than have it forced upon them? OTOH, how much of a "choice" would you have of whether to use it or not if all the people you were competing with were using it?
Christopher Davis
12. ckd
The idea of Zone manipulation and similar "cheats" dimming a star goes back to "The Blabber", so it's natural to suspect that OnOff is a larger version of either the ansible from that or Countermeasure from A Fire Upon the Deep.

C12VT (#11): see Vinge's "Win a Nobel Prize!" which was one of the "Futures" stories in Nature. (Due to the paywall, it's $32(!!) to read it there; better to pay $10 for the Kindle edition of his Collected Stories, which includes it.)

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