Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky (Tor, 1999) wouldn’t be a tragedy if it existed alone. It’s a tragedy because it’s a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (Tor, 1992) and the reader knows things about the universe the characters do not know. All the other things I can think of that make this trick work are historical or mythological. Deepness does it entirely within SF and entirely within Vinge’s invented universe. I think it’s an incredible achievement.
In A Fire Upon the Deep we learn early on that our immediate cosmic neighborhood is divided into Zones, working outwards from the Galactic core. In each Zone, cognition and technology work better. So in the core it isn’t possible to be intelligent at all, in the Slow Zone it’s possible to be as intelligent as a human but no better and you can’t go faster than light, in the Beyond you can have FTL and anti-gravity and enhanced intelligences, and in the Transcend you can have godlike intelligences and Clarke’s Law tech. The novel takes place in the Beyond, with an excursion to the Slow Zone, and concerns a problem from the Low Transcend risking upsetting the whole thing. (Vinge apparently thought up this brilliant universe as a way around his idiotic Singularity non-problem, which just goes to show that a) constraints can produce excellent art and b) every cloud has a silver lining.)
The whole of Deepness takes place in the Slow Zone, among characters, human and alien, who have absolutely no idea that their universe works that way. They don’t know there are other Zones out there, they think they’re part of a baroque and complex civilization that stretches for light-years, that’s held together by a thin skein of trading spaceships.
The universe they believe they live in has a long history of Failed Dreams — AI, FTL, really good life extension techniques — which have kept receding as they are chased. There’s a profession of “Programmer/Archaeologist” where your job is to excavate the underlayers of the old programs your computers are running — and they’re very old; in some cases, there are slower-than-light starships running on Linux.
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The plot of Deepness is an exciting one, with aliens going through an technological revolution, with two groups of opposed humans trying to use them and each other, and with tiny incremental advances in technology meaning a huge amount. Whole civilizations are perishing in the background because they’ve got as far as it’s possible to go–their planets are at the point where one little bit of overload will bring it all down around their ears. There’s mindwipe, and the fascinating idea of Focus (enslaving people and fixing their brains in one direction so that they become obsessive about it), and a carefully timed revolt, and secrets among the aliens. There are great characters and a great character-driven plot, and I didn’t even mention how terrifically alien and yet entirely comprehensible the aliens are, who have evolved on a planet around a star that goes out regularly and freezes even their air. There’s a happy ending.
But in the end what brings me back to Deepness again and again isn’t any of that but the terrible tragedy that surrounds that happy ending, that Pham Nuwen wants to find the secret at the heart of the galaxy and he sets off in the wrong direction to find it.
At the end of the movie Far From Heaven the hero, a black guy in a segregated 1950s US, leaves the white heroine and gets on a train in Hartford, Connecticut, towards the US South. “No!” I said in an anguished whisper. I wanted him to walk across the platform and get on the train going the other way. In Montreal even then he could have married the girl. He’s heading in the wrong direction and he doesn’t even know there’s a possible way out.
It’s a heck of an achievement for Vinge to make me feel the same way in an entirely SFnal universe, and without a word about it in the book.