For some reason the Nebula Award committee does not seem to like Vernor Vinge. The author is all over the Hugo Awards, but he is completely absent from the Nebulas. Anyway, A Deepness in the Sky, first published in 1999, won the 2000 Hugo Award. The book is something of a prequel to Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep which won the Hugo in 1993. I say “something” of a prequel because the events in A Deepness in the Sky take place thirty thousand years prior to the events of A Fire Upon the Deep. In the latter, we get references to the ancient Qeng Ho trading culture and their iconic leader Pham Nuwen; in the former we are set in the time when the Qeng Ho are near the height of their power and Pham Nuwen is still an influencial force.
The plot of A Deepness in the Sky is quite extensive. Humanity is limited to sub-light travel, travelling the stars in ramscoop ships, spending most of their journeys in frozen hibernation. The Qeng Ho are traders known throughout human space, making huge profits by getting in on the ground floor of blossoming civilizations. A small Qeng Ho fleet has decided to travel to the mysterious “OnOff” star, a sun that shines for about forty years, turns off for about two hundred, then repeats the cycle. Astronomers have detected radio signals from a planet around the OnOff star, indicating that a sentient race has just entered the age of technology. By reaching these aliens just as they begin to establish themselves, the Qeng Ho intend to insert their influence at the lowest levels. Imagine the money and power one could have by controlling Microsoft at the beginning of the digital age. Unfortunately for the Qeng Ho, another group of humans known as the “Emergents” have a similar goal. The two groups reach the OnOff star at the same time, resulting in a power struggle that spans decades.
Summarizing this book is difficult as there is so much content in its six hundred pages. You have the epic history of Pham Nuwen, the strange (yet familiar) spider-like race on the planet orbiting the OnOff star, the legendary Qeng Ho and the methods they use to gain permanence in an ever-changing galaxy, and the devious Emergents with their vile but powerful “Focus” technology. Vinge shows you plots and plans that span hundreds of years, along with intriguing ideas about technology and society. In some ways the book is very similar to A Fire Upon the Deep – you find yourself being taken back and forth between the high-technology humans and the low-technology spiders. Vinge doesn’t shy away from jumping into the minds of a completely alien race and trying to describe how they would think and act.
In the end, I did not enjoy this book as much as A Fire Upon the Deep. I guess I felt that A Deepness in the Sky was a bit meandering in places, perhaps too slowly paced. On the other hand, the main chunk of storyline spans about 50 years so maybe the pacing is supposed to reflect that. One thing that is refreshing about Vinge is that his future society does not contain the constant orgies and free love that you see in so much sci-fi. Niven, Clarke, Haldeman… all these guys are like, “And see, in the future, you’ll get to have all the sex you want with any woman you want, all the time!” I’m neither condemning nor condoning that societal vision, I’m just saying that it was nice to see Vinge breaking the mold. Overall, A Deepness in the Sky is some really great sci-fi and one has to be impressed with Vinge’s display of intelligence and creativity.