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A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

Every novel I read by Vinge seems to me to be better than the last. Maybe it’s because I started with earlier work, or maybe it’s just the impression that each of his books gives me. But one thing is for certain: A Deepness in the Sky certainly is a hell of a novel, space opera or not.

I finished it last night, on the couch, very late into the night, and found myself in an odd position for such a time: I was excited about it, and wanted to talk about it. But it was the middle of the night, so I went to bed. This, it seems to me, is something like several moments in the novel itself: the individual, having glimpsed the heart of a secret, must resist talking about it, geeking out about it, even, and go about his or her business as usual.

Which may be the signal experience of the nerd living in the mainstream world. Fascinating stuff, that.

I should note, there are spoilers below. The book is over a decade old, but I’m sure some have not gotten to it.  But if spoilers ruin books for you, just stop here and go out and get a copy and read it.

Okay, the stuff I loved about it:

For one thing, Vinge’s use of (and discussion of) translations of the (alien) Spiders’ language and culture makes it possible for him to represent these bizarre creatures in a way that human readers can follow and relate to, but at the same time he makes the point — especially towards the end — that these creatures are both nothing like as human as they’ve seemed all the way along, nor are they fuzzy cute little aliens. (The negotiations at the very end hammer this point home.)

One thing I find fascinating is that the world of A Deepness in the Sky feels just as ancient as the world in A Fire Upon the Deep. Because I read the latter first, I know enough to see it as a prequel, but foor me, the ancientness of the galactic civilization really hit me harder in Deepness, probably because of the view we get of Pham Nuwen/Trinli’s past, and because of some of the specific conceits of the story. (Like, say, software archaeology, and the pattern of civilizational boom-and-bust that plays out in several of Pham’s flashbacks.)

I found the clash between the Emergents and the Qeng Ho to be pretty believable, but also more chilling in a sense because, well, it makes sense: fighting a war in the depths of space means you might end up having to claim resources from those with whom you fight… and the nature of spacefaring life being what it is, one of the prime resources you might end up claiming will be the very people you fought with. As for Focus, it’s a concept I recognize from a flubbed story of my own, and is a fitting symbol of the problem smart people have with those who surround them: that, being smart, you know exactly how much would be possible if everyone around you was as “into” something and gave a crap and really tried to do their best at just one thing… and Vinge’s story explores both the temptation and the horrors inherent in that concept pretty powerfully, too.

Also I found myself grinning at certain bits of the novel, like at the discussion that Pham and Ezr have (in the last twenty pages or so) about Qiwi and Trixia. A friend and I were talking about the struggles geeky men have with relationships, and Vinge explores that side of polymathdom and geekhood quite well — not only in terms of Ezr’s romantic issues, but also in the fraught, complex, and interesting relationship between Pham and Sura shown in flashbacks.

I also liked how Vinge managed to explore a number of characters with clashing viewpoints sympathetically; the relationship between Pham and Ezr is wonderful, and all the surprises hidden in the person of Anne Reynolt are superb, each hitting hard and throwing everything we’ve seen before into a new light. (He does this pretty well with Ezr and Pham as well, but Reynolt stands out in my mind.)

I’ve been reading the novel so long now (for months on end) that other things that impressed me in the earlier parts of the book probably are slipping my memory, but that’s okay: though it’s rare for me to reread a book, I think this one warrants it. I won’t do so for a long time, but I imagine I will eventually get back to it. It’s a world that fascinates, and surprises, and yet had me nodding my head a lot, as I thought, “Yeah, of course that’s something that would exist in a society like this one…”

Excellent novel. Very highly recommended.

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