Interstellar travel, mercantile networks, bureaucracy and decentralization: An Appreciation for Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, the 2000 Prometheus Best Novel winner

As part of our series of Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, here’s a review-essay about Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky:

By William H. Stoddard and Michael Grossberg

   Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky is an exemplary example of the New Space Opera of the 1990s, and a fascinating and complex sequel to his Hugo-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep.

Set in the inner Milky Way galaxy with fully realized characters, both alien and human, the story highlights the threats to civilization from centralized power while illuminating the civilizing dynamics of free-trade networks.

Vinge’s epic novel imagines a complex future with many human-inhabited planets that have developed over several thousand years through slower-than-light interstellar travel, terraforming, life-extension techniques, and advanced computer networks.

Yet many of these advanced societies repeatedly have collapsed into barbarism and decay through the failed dream of collectivism, statism, or subtle computational failures.

An interstellar trading fleet, the Qeng Ho, turns out to be the actual sustaining force for development and civilization. The Qeng Ho, based on the interurban mercantile networks of the overseas Chinese and other Asian communities, constitute a decentralized and free society devoted to trade and to maintaining reputation (often a civilizing and peace-enhancing force in actual British and American history). Their worst condemnation is to say that someone does not care about return business.

Amid the first human contact with an alien civilization (sophisticated spider-like beings) at the threshold of high technology, the Qeng Ho clash with the Emergents, a planetary society with hierarchical politics.

As the rival societies compete to establish relations with the alien Spiders, Vinge contrasts two business management styles – the Qeng Ho’s decentralized trade networks and the Emergents’ corporate/bureaucratic hierarchy – and two ethical traditions, one for which free trade is inherently a virtue and the other in which trade is a vice, crime or sin.

The Qeng Ho, flourishing in a multicultural future, embody libertarian ideals of a functional and diverse culture with the flexibility to carry on trade over time spans longer than the life spans of individual humans. The Qeng Ho, whose entire history is contained within Vinge’s story, find it good business to enrich every other culture they deal with as, in the real world, market economies have been doing since the Stone Age.

Note: Vinge also won the 1987 Prometheus Award for Best Novel (for Marooned in Real Time, the 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (for his story “True Names”) and a Special Prometheus Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014.

Here are excerpt from Vinge’s Acceptance Speech, worth quoting because of his comments about freedom, the future, anarcho-capitalism and science fiction:
In his 2000 acceptance speech at the 2000 Worldcon in Chicago, printed in Prometheus quarterly in the Fall 2000 (Vol. 18) issue, Vinge said: “Stories are something that can change people’s minds, and they’re something that’s very powerful to change people’s minds whether the environment is violent or peaceful. But in a peaceful environment, they’re especially important for changing people’s minds.”

Vernor Vinge (Creative Commons license)

“So the notion of the Libertarian Futurist Society, in the first place, that people should just think about the idea of liberty, and in the second place, to get them to consider certain libertarian and anarcho-capitalist points of view – these are very, very important and science fiction in general can be set up to have an immense effect,” Vinge said.
“One feature of my personal beliefs is that libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism have their best chance for success in a peaceful and highly successful economy. And this actually fits in with the notion in science fiction of the power of the word.”
“If we could go back to the year 1000 and try to convince some Norman lord, a person of good will perhaps, about democracy, he might listen to you all the way through and when you are done he would tell you why it was absurd, that if they took a vote they’ll simply have another guy sitting on the hill the next day, after they killed the Norman lord. And something happened in the thousand years between then and now. I don’t think it’s going to take a thousand years for the development of the sorts of things that most of us are interested in – and I hope that stories like this will make some contribution to those developments.”

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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