Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 1999

A Deepness in the Sky

By Vernor Vinge

(TOR, $27.95)
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
January 1999

Six years ago, Vernor Vinge won the Hugo award for his novel A Fire upon the Deep. A Deepness in the Sky, his first novel since then, is a prequel to A Fire upon the Deep. Many such further works in a series are disappointments—even perfectly good novels can be disappointing against a sufficiently high standard. But A Deepness in the Sky was not a disappointment; its story is compelling and its ideas are radical and ingenious.

To start with, it displays high technical competence as fiction. The page count and the cast of characters are large, as with many recent books; but in this book, all the major characters, both human and alien, remain sharply distinct and individual. The story is divided into three parts; impressively, nearly all of the third part is a sustained climax, one whose tension remains high for chapter after chapter. Many surprises emerge during this final part, but all of them were properly foreshadowed earlier in the novel; often the crucial events took place in plain sight of the reader.

This is the hardest of hard science fiction. It contains pointers to the space operatic marvels of A Fire upon the Deep, but it is set in the inner parts of the Milky Way Galaxy, where few of those marvels are possible; Vinge's characters occasionally refer to the Failed Dreams of Old Earth's dawn ages, from antigravity to true artificial intelligence. The human societies in this setting have extremely good distributed computer networks, slower-than-light interstellar travel, terraforming, and life extension and have been spreading out through the galaxy for several thousand years. And, tragically, the many human-inhabited planets repeatedly fall from high civilization into barbarism, through crude statism or subtle computational failures. A central government able to prevent this from happening is one of the Failed Dreams, for centralization itself is one of the things that destroy high civilizations.

What preserves civilization is something quite different: an interstellar trading fleet, the Qeng Ho. As its name suggests, this is based on the interurban mercantile networks of the overseas Chinese and other Asian communities; people of white European ancestry are a minority in Vinge's future. The Qeng Ho are an entire society devoted to trade and to maintaining reputation; their worst condemnation is to say that someone does not care about return business. An important part of this story is the collision of the Qeng Ho with a planetary society with very different values, the Emergents.

What brings the two together is the first human contact with an alien civilization at the threshold of high technology, living in a thoroughly exotic solar system whose sun shuts down regularly. Vinge dedicates this novel to Poul Anderson, and it invites comparison with Anderson, but perhaps even more with Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. In fact, on reading it I was struck by how human Vinge's Spiders seemed and how much this reminded me of Clement's Mesklinites, only to discover that Vinge had very carefully accounted for that humanization within the events of the novel itself, an impressively clever idea.

The two human societies competing to establish relations with the Spiders are equally cleverly portrayed and this is where the story becomes radical. For in the first place, Vinge is contrasting two ethical traditions, one for which trade is inherently a virtue and one for which it is a vice, a crime, or even a sin. And in the second place, he is contrasting two business management styles: the decentralized trade networks of the Qeng Ho and the corporate hierarchy of the Emergents. It can't have been accidental that one of the key posts among the Emergents is titled Director of Human Resources, and that it gives that familiar label profoundly sinister overtones. Like Michael Flynn's In the Country of the Blind, but like too few other libertarian science fiction novels, A Deepness in the Sky points at the subtle authoritarianism that came into American business practices with the adoption of the Prussian general staff model for corporate management, the efficiency engineering of Taylor and the Gilbreths, and the creation of the profession of business administration.

But beyond this, the Qeng Ho offer an alternative vision of a culture founded on business and trade, one conveyed in ingenious jokes, such as the Qeng Ho starship Invisible Hand being taken over by the Emergent head of security, who can't imagine why the Qeng Ho would adopt a name that so perfectly defines his function. This culture is envisioned as one that can carry on trade over time spans longer than the life spans of many human societies, and that finds it good business to enrich every other culture it deals withas, in the real world, market economies have been doing since the Stone Age. Vinge contrives to fit the entire story of the Qeng Ho civilization into this account of one of its crises.

In short, this is a libertarian science fiction novel that succeeds equally brilliantly as a libertarian work, as a work of science fiction, and as a novel. It was better than I hoped for for the past six years. If another book equally deserving of next year's Prometheus Award is published this year, it will have been a year of marvels for us all.

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