The Barnes & Noble Review
A richly textured hard-SF novel that combines adept characterization with action and insight into alien civilizations, Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is a provocative portrayal of an outlandish world on the edge of great advancement that must stave off civil war and exploitation from other planets. A story set in the same universe as Vinge's Hugo Award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep, the highly charged A Deepness in the Sky is an even more complex and involving examination of human expansion into distant galaxies. Here the balance between trade, corruption, and deliberate destruction is blurred as three separate societies come into fiery contact.
The Qeng Ho, a fleet of interstellar traders, are in a race with the Emergents, another band of traders, to the planet Arachna. Located in the On/Off star system, a place where the sun inexplicably goes out for two centuries before reigniting for another two, Arachna is the home of spiderlike inhabitants known as the Arachnids; they are only the third nonhuman sentient creatures found in the universe. Although the Arachnids are in hibernation for another year, their civilization remains on the verge of taking great technological leaps, making them the perfect race for the trading worlds to control. The Emergents are outwardly friendly to the Qeng Ho and are willing to share the ripe planet, but not all the Qeng Ho commanding officers are willing to trust them.
Eventually, after a brutal Emergent ambush destroys half the Qeng Ho starships and troops, Ezr Vinh, a young Qeng Ho crew member, is ordered by theEmergentsto take command of the remainder of the fleet. While his love, Trixia Bonsol, remains hospitalized under the cryptic term of "focused," Ezr must do whatever he can to save his people, even if in doing so he looks like a traitorous Emergent lackey. Pham Nuwen, a mysterious old man who is at once a historical figure of the Qeng Ho but not truly one of them, remains an enigma as he works to free the enslaved forces.
Vinge's narrative splits into several threads as we follow various characters through a diverse series of events. In a flashback scene we witness the last few years of Arachnid life before the coming of the Deep Dark, when the entire population of the warring world settles deep into the frozen earth to hibernate for the two centuries before the coming of the New Sun. Sherkaner Underhill is a brilliant scientist who attempts to do something none of the spider folk has ever dreamed of doing before: Through the use of chemicals and machinery, he plans to awaken before his natural time in an effort to catch the other side unaware. Instead, upon awakening from the Darkness, he and his team discover that aliens are in the process of ravaging their world as their fellow Arachnids sleep.
With great ingenuity and proficient command, Vinge winds these elements together into a powerful and cohesive plot, tightening the meshed accounts of conflicts and slavery into a gripping, finely honed tale of suspense. From its most basic components to the full tapestry of the wars at hand, the multilayered and epic structure presents ingenious speculations of alien life, with skillfully interwoven parallel story lines full of high drama and action-packed escapism. Vinge is a master at using scientific theory to create a real sense of apprehension, never letting up on the intrigue throughout the entire lengthy novel. The Qeng Ho fight against not only their servitude but also their own despair, sorrow, and loss as they watch the remnants of their identities being absorbed into the Emergent community. The Arachnids are fearful of the alien invaders as well as their own changing destiny in the galaxy, realizing that a new path must be taken in order to preserve the past. Character and culture are never lost in the dramatic and moving quality of the book.
High-octane concepts abound throughout, covering a wide range of ground, from minor details of the Arachnid's poetry and belief systems to the escalating psychological persuasions of the Emergents upon the remaining Qeng Ho. These particulars do more than merely flesh out the plot twists, as Vinge capably threads these ideas into the narrative and breathes memorable existence into this universe. His insight and ability to build tension will carry the reader through devastation and captivity into the heart of redemption. This is space opera taken to an entirely different level, full of engaging, immense, and bizarre wonders.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this prequel to his Hugo Award-winning space opera, A Fire upon the Deep), Vinge takes us to an era some thousands of years in our future, when humanity has just begun its exploration of intergalactic space and has as yet no inkling of the complex physics that rules the galaxy. Although human beings have settled on dozens of worlds and created societies ancient enough to have achieved greatness and collapse several times over, only the most limited traces have been found of alien cultures. Now, however, the Qeng Ho, a band of human interstellar traders, have discovered the Spiders, an alien race poised to enter its own space age. Unfortunately, the Qeng Ho must compete with another, less beneficent spacefaring human culture, the Emergents, who are bent on conquest rather than trade. The Spiders have just come out of a two-century-long suspended animation made necessary by the fluctuations of their erratic sun. Their culture is entering a period of explosive growth that could end in tragedy, due in part to a dangerous nuclear arms race and in part to the Emergents' desire to enslave them. Vinge, a professor of mathematics and computer science (at San Diego State), is among the very best of the current crop of hard SF writers, producing work that is not only fast-paced and intellectually challenging, but also stylishly written and centered on carefully drawn characters. This long, action-packed novel should fully engage any SF reader's sense of wonder, and likely will win the author his sixth Hugo nomination.
A war between two rival civilizations over trading rights to the planet Arachna results in the virtual enslavement of the Qeng Ho by the victorious Emergent culture. As the Spider-folk of Arachna evolve in their customary cyclical pattern, unaware of the threat that lies in their near future, a few Qeng Ho rebels work desperately to free themselves and save Arachna from conquest. This prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (Tor, 1992) demonstrates Vinge's capacity for meticulously detailed culture-building and grand-scale sf drama. Recommended for most sf collections.
A distant prequel to Vinge's 1992 masterpiece, A Fire Upon the Deep, with a single character in common. Some 8,000 years hence, the Qeng Ho interstellar trading fleet investigates the enigmatic OnOff-a star that shines for 35 years, then extinguishes for 250; once understood, its weird physics may yield an improved star drive. Meantime, its single planet harbors intelligent aliens, the Spiders, divided into warring factions, but thought to be descendants of an advanced starfaring civilization. During the Dark, they survive frozen solid in pools of ice. Also arriving at OnOff are the acquisitive, ambitious Emergents. Cooperating at first, the Emergents later mount a treacherous sneak attack, defeating the traders and enslaving the survivors. The Emergents' overwhelming advantage is Focus, the result of a brain-infecting virus that can be induced to secrete mind-controlling chemicals. Those Focused are instilled with unswerving loyalty. The Emergents are led by a smiling deceiver, Tomas Nau, his sadistic assistant, Ritser Brughel, and personnel genius Anne Reynolt, once Nau's greatest adversary, now enslaved and Focused. The Qeng Ho resistance is thin, consisting of legendary genius and onetime leader Pham Nuwen, whose failed dream of a Qeng Ho galactic empire forced him into exile; young trader Ezh Vinh; and, secretly, Ezh's love, linguist Trixia Bonsol, now Focused and translating the Spiders' language. Both the Emergent and Qeng Ho fleets lost interstellar capability during the battle, so the humans must wait until the Spiders develop technology advanced enough to help them. As the OnOff star reignites, the Spiders emerge from their "deepnesses" and, galvanized by geniusSherkaner Underhill, burst into a frenzy of technological development. Nau plans to trick the Spiders into destroying themselves in a nuclear war. Pham, meanwhile, schemes to defeat Nau but sees in Focus the key to realizing his old dreams of empire.
Huge, intricate, and ingenious, with superbly realized aliens: a chilling, spellbinding dramatization of the horrors of slavery and mind control.
From the Publisher
“Huge, intricate, and ingenious, with superbly realized aliens:a chilling spellbinding dramatization of the horrors of slavery and mind control.” Kirkus Reviews (pointer review)
“A feast of imagination. As always, Vinge satisfies with richly imagined worlds and a full-flavored story.” Greg Bear
“Wonderfully engaging!” Cleveland Plain Dealer
Read an Excerpt
A Deepness in the Sky
By Vernor Vinge, James R. Frenkel
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC Copyright © 1999 Vernor Vinge
All rights reserved.
The Qeng Ho fleet was first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
They were strangers, meeting far from either side's home territory. That was nothing new to the traders of the Qeng Ho—though normally the meetings were not so unwelcome, and there was the possibility of trade. Here, well, there was treasure but it did not belong to either side. It lay frozen, waiting to be looted or exploited or developed, depending on one's nature. So far from friends, so far from a social context ... so far from witnesses. This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it. Qeng Ho and Emergents, the two expeditions, had danced around each other for days, probing for intent and firepower. Agreements were drawn and redrawn, plans were made for joint landings. Yet the Traders had learned precious little of true Emergent intent. And so the Emergents' invitation to dinner was greeted with relief by some and with a silent grinding of teeth by others.
Trixia Bonsol leaned her shoulder against his, cocked her head so that only he could hear: "So, Ezr. The food tastes okay. Maybe they're not trying to poison us."
"It's bland enough," he murmured back, and tried not to be distracted by her touch. Trixia Bonsol was planet-born, one of the specialist crew. Like most of the Trilanders, she had a streak of overtrustfulness in her makeup; she liked to tease Ezr about his "Trader paranoia."
Ezr's gaze flicked across the tables. Fleet Captain Park had brought one hundred to the banquet, but very few armsmen. The Qeng Ho were seated among nearly as many Emergents. He and Trixia were far from the captain's table. Ezr Vinh, apprentice Trader, and Trixia Bonsol, linguistics postdoc. He assumed the Emergents down here were equally low-ranking. The best Qeng Ho estimate was that the Emergents were strict authoritarians, but Ezr saw no overt marks of rank. Some of the strangers were talkative, and their Nese was easily understandable, scarcely different from the broadcast standard. The pale, heavyset fellow on his left had maintained nonstop chitchat throughout the meal. Ritser Brughel seemed to be a Programmer-at-Arms, though he hadn't recognized the term when Ezr used it. He was full of the schemes they could use in coming years.
"Tas been done often enough afore, dontcha know? Get 'em when they don't know technology—or haven't yet rebuilt it," said Brughel, concentrating most of his efforts away from Ezr, on old Pham Trinli. Brughel seemed to think that apparent age conferred some special authority, not realizing that any older guy down among the juniors must truly be a loser. Ezr didn't mind the being ignored; it gave him an opportunity to observe without distraction. Pham Trinli seemed to enjoy the attention. As one Programmer-at-Arms to another, Trinli tried to top everything the pale, blond fellow said, in the process yielding confidences that made Ezr squirm.
One thing about these Emergents, they were technically competent. They had ramships that traveled fast between the stars; that put them at the top in technical savvy. And this didn't seem to be decadent knowledge. Their signal and computer abilities were as good as the Qeng Ho's—and that, Vinh knew, made Captain Park's security people more nervous than mere Emergent secrecy. The Qeng Ho had culled the golden ages of a hundred civilizations. In other circumstances, the Emergents' competence would have been cause for honest mercantile glee.
Competent, and hardworking too. Ezr looked beyond the tables. Not to ogle, but this place was impressive. The "living quarters" on ramscoop ships were generally laughable. Such ships must have substantial shielding and moderate strength of construction. Even at fractional lightspeed, an interstellar voyage took years, and crew and passengers spent most of that time as corpsicles. Yet the Emergents had thawed many of their people before living space was in place. They had built this habitat and spun it up in less than eight days—even while final orbit corrections were being done. The structure was more than two hundred meters across, a partial ring, and it was all made from materials that had been lugged across twenty light-years.
Inside, there was the beginning of opulence. The overall effect was classicist in some low degree, like early Solar habitats before life-support systems were well understood. The Emergents were masters of fabric and ceramics, though Ezr guessed that bio-arts were nonexistent. The drapes and furniture contrived to disguise the curvature in the floor. The ventilator breeze was soundless and just strong enough to give the impression of limitless airy space. There were no windows, not even spin-corrected views. Where the walls were visible, they were covered with intricate manual artwork (oil paintings?). Their bright colors gleamed even in the half-light. He knew Trixia wanted a closer look at those. Even more than language, she claimed that native art showed the inner heart of a culture.
Vinh looked back at Trixia, gave her a smile. She would see through it, but maybe it fooled the Emergents. Ezr would have given anything to possess the apparent cordiality of Captain Park, up there at the head table, carrying on such an affable conversation with the Emergents' Tomas Nau. You'd think the two were old school buddies. Vinh settled back, listening not for sense but for attitude.
Not all the Emergents were smiling, talkative types. The redhead at the front table, just a few places down from Tomas Nau: She'd been introduced, but Vinh couldn't remember the name. Except for the glint of a silver necklace, the woman was plainly—severely—dressed. She was slender, of indeterminate age. Her red hair might have been a style for the evening, but her unpigmented skin would have been harder to fake. She was exotically beautiful, except for the awkwardness in her bearing, the hard set of her mouth. Her gaze ranged up and down the tables, yet she might as well have been alone. Vinh noticed that their hosts hadn't placed any guest beside her. Trixia often teased Vinh that he was a great womanizer if only in his head. Well, this weird-looking lady would have figured more in Ezr Vinh's nightmares than in any happy fantasy.
Over at the front table, Tomas Nau had come to his feet. The servers stepped back from the tables. A hush fell upon the seated Emergents and all but the most self- absorbed Traders.
"Time for some toasts to friendship between the stars," Ezr muttered. Bonsol elbowed him, her attention pointedly directed at the front table. He felt her stifle a laugh when the Emergent leader actually began with:
"Friends, we are all a long way from home." He swept his arm in a gesture that seemed to take in the spaces beyond the walls of the banquet room. "We've both made potentially serious mistakes. We knew this star system is bizarre." Imagine a star so drastically variable that it nearly turns itself off for 215 years out of every 250. "Over the millennia, astrophysicists of more than one civilization tried to convince their rulers to send an expedition here ways." He stopped, smiled. "Of course, till our era, tas expensively far beyond the Human Realm. Yet now it is the simultaneous object of two human expeditions." There were smiles all around, and the thought What wretched luck. "Of course, there is a reason that made the coincidence likely. Years aback there was no driving need for such an expedition. Now we all have a reason: The race you call the Spiders. Only the third nonhuman intelligence ever found." And in a planetary system as bleak as this, such life was unlikely to have arisen naturally. The Spiders themselves must be the descendants of starfaring nonhumans—something Humankind had never encountered. It could be the greatest treasure the Qeng Ho had ever found, all the more so because the present Spider civilization had only recently rediscovered radio. They should be as safe and tractable as any fallen human civilization.
Nau gave a self-deprecating chuckle and glanced at Captain Park. "Till recently, I had not realized how perfectly our strengths and weaknesses, our mistakes and insights, complemented each other. You came from much farther away, but in very fast ships already built. We came from nearer, but took the time to bring much more. We both figured most things correctly." Telescope arrays had watched the OnOff star for as long as Humankind had been in space. It had been known for centuries that an Earth-sized planet with life-signature chemistry orbited the star. If OnOff had been a normal star, the planet might have been quite pleasant, not the frozen snowball it was most of the time. There were no other planetary bodies in the OnOff system, and ancient astronomers had confirmed the moonlessness of the single world in the system. No other terrestrial planets, no gas giants, no asteroids ... and no cometary cloud. The space around the OnOff star was swept clean. Such would not be surprising near a catastrophic variable, and certainly the OnOff star might have been explosive in the past—but then how did the one world survive? It was one of the mysteries about the place.
All that was known, and planned for. Captain Park's fleet had spent its brief time here in a frantic survey of the system, and in dredging a few kilotonnes of volatiles from the frozen world. In fact, they had found four rocks in the system—asteroids, you might call them, if you were in a generous mood. They were strange things, the largest about two kilometers long. They were solid diamond. The Trilander scientists nearly had fistfights trying to explain that.
But you can't eat diamonds, not raw anyway. Without the usual mix of native volatiles and ores, fleet life would be very uncomfortable indeed. The damn Emergents were both late and lucky. Apparently, they had fewer science and academic specialists, slower starships ... but lots and lots of hardware.
The Emergent boss gave a benign smile and continued: "There really is only one place in all the OnOff system where volatiles exist in any quantity—and that is on the Spider world itself." He looked back and forth across his audience, his gaze lingering on the visitors. "I know it's something that some of you had hoped to postpone till after the Spiders were active again.... But there are limits to the value of lurking, and my fleet includes heavy lifters. Director Reynolt"—aha, that was the redhead's name!—"agrees with your scientists that the locals never did progress beyond their primitive radios. All the 'Spiders' are frozen deep underground and will remain so till the OnOff star relights." In about a year. The cause of OnOff's cycle was a mystery, but the transition from dark to bright repeated with a period that had drifted little in eight thousand years.
Next to him at the front table, S. J. Park was smiling, too, probably with as much sincerity as Tomas Nau. Fleet Captain Park had not been popular with the Triland Forestry Department; that was partly because he cut their pre-Flight time to the bone, even when there had been no evidence of a second fleet. Park had all but fried his ramjets in a delayed deceleration, coming in just ahead of the Emergents. He had a valid claim to first arrival, and precious little else: the diamond rocks, a small cache of volatiles. Until their first landings, they hadn't even known what the aliens really looked like. Those landings, poking around monuments, stealing a little from garbage dumps had revealed a lot—which now must be bargained away.
"It's time to begin working together," Nau continued. "I don't know how much you all have heard about our discussions of the last two days. Surely there have been rumors. You'll have details very soon, but Captain Park, your Trading Committee, and I thought that now is a good occasion to show our united purpose. We are planning a joint landing of considerable size. The main goal will be to raise at least a million tonnes of water and similar quantities of metallic ores. We have heavy lifters that can accomplish this with relative ease. As secondary goals, we'll leave some unobtrusive sensors and undertake a small amount of cultural sampling. These results and resources will be split equally between our two expeditions. In space, our two groups will use the local rocks to create a cover for our habitats, hopefully within a few light-seconds of the Spiders." Nau glanced again at Captain Park. So some things were still under discussion.
Nau raised his glass. "So a toast. To an end of mistakes, and to our common undertaking. May there be a greater focus in the future."
"Hey, my dear, I'm supposed to be the paranoid one, remember? I thought you'd be beating me up for my nasty Trader suspicions."
Trixia smiled a little weakly but didn't answer right away. She'd been unusually quiet all the way back from the Emergent banquet. They were back in her quarters in the Traders' temp. Here she was normally her most outspoken and delightful self. "Their habitat was certainly nice," she finally said.
"Compared to our temp it is." Ezr patted the plastic wall. "For something made from parts they shipped in, it was a great job." The Qeng Ho temp was scarcely more than a giant, partitioned balloon. The gym and meeting rooms were good-sized, but the place was not exactly elegant. The Traders saved elegance for larger structures they could make with local materials. Trixia had just two connected rooms, a bit over one hundred cubic meters total. The walls were plain, but Trixia had worked hard on the consensus imagery: her parents and sisters, a panorama from some great Triland forest. Much of her desk area was filled with historical flats from Old Earth before the Space Age. There were pictures from the first London and the first Berlin, pictures of horses and aeroplanes and commissars. In fact, those cultures were bland compared with the extremes played out in the histories of later worlds. But in the Dawn Age, everything was being discovered for the first time. There had never been a time of higher dreams or greater naivete. That time was Ezr's specialty, to the horror of his parents and the puzzlement of most of his friends. And yet Trixia understood. The Dawn Age was only a hobby for her, maybe, but she loved to talk about the old, old first times. He knew he would never find another like her.
"Look, Trixia, what's got you down? Surely there's nothing suspicious about the Emergents having nice quarters. Most of the evening you were your usual softheaded self"—she didn't rise to the insult—"but then something happened. What did you notice?" He pushed off the ceiling to float closer to where she was seated against a wall divan.
"It ... it was several little things, and—" She reached out to catch his hand. "You know I have an ear for languages." Another quick smile. "Their dialect of Nese is so close to your broadcast standard that it's clear they've bootstrapped off the Qeng Ho Net."
"Sure. That all fits with their claims. They're a young culture, crawling back from a bad fall." Will I end up having to defend them? The Emergent offer had been reasonable, almost generous. It was the sort of thing that made any good Trader a little cautious. But Trixia had seen something else to worry about.
"Yes, but having a common language makes a lot of things difficult to disguise. I heard a dozen authoritarian turns of speech—and they didn't seem to be fossil usages. The Emergents are accustomed to owning people, Ezr."
"You mean slaves? This is a high-tech civilization, Trixia. Technical people don't make good slaves. Without their wholehearted cooperation, things fall apart."
She squeezed his hand abruptly, not angry, not playful, but intense in a way he'd never seen with her before. "Yes, yes. But we don't know all their kinks. We do know they play rough. I had a whole evening of listening to that reddish blond fellow sitting beside you, and the pair that were on my right. The word 'trade' does not come easily to them. Exploitation is the only relationship they can imagine with the Spiders."
"Hmm." Trixia was like this. Things that slipped past him could make such a difference to her. Sometimes they seemed trivial even after she explained them. But sometimes her explanation was like a bright light revealing things he had never guessed. "... I don't know, Trixia. You know we Qeng Ho can sound pretty, um, arrogant when the customers are out of earshot."
Excerpted from A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, James R. Frenkel. Copyright © 1999 Vernor Vinge. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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