Tor, 1999, 775 pages
Vernor Vinge established himself as one of our greatest living science-fiction writers with his critically acclaimed, best-selling, Hugo Award-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep. Now he returns to the captivating universe of that book, transporting us back 30,000 years.
After thousands of years searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race. There are two human groups: the Qeng Ho, a culture of free traders, and the Emergents, a ruthless society based on the technological enslavement of minds. The group that opens trade with the aliens will reap unimaginable riches. But first, both groups must wait at the aliens' very doorstep for their strange star to relight and for their planet to reawaken, as it does every 250 years
Then, following terrible treachery, the Qeng Ho must fight for their freedom and for the lives of the unsuspecting innocents on the planet below, while the aliens themselves play a role unsuspected by the Qeng Ho and Emergents alike.
More than just a great science-fiction adventure, A Deepness in the Sky is a universal drama of courage, self-discovery, and the redemptive power of love.
In Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, the entire galaxy was threatened. In A Deepness in the Sky, it's only the fate of one planet, two species, and three civilizations that's at stake. But a smaller scale does not make the story less intense or personal. A Fire Upon the Deep was one of the best SF novels I've read in years, and a A Deepness in the Sky has left me slavering to read Vinge's next novel set in this universe, the just-released Children of the Sky.
Technically they are set in the same universe, but 30,000 years apart. They're completely independent novels and there's no need to read one before the other. (A Fire Upon the Deep has a minor shout-out to one of the characters in A Deepness in the Sky, but that's about the only connection.)
The Qeng Ho are a race of interstellar traders. They travel between worlds in slower-than-light starships, spending most of their travel time in coldsleep. Because of the vast distances between stars, Qeng Ho live extremely long and isolated lives relative to the outside universe: a Qeng Ho trader might see entire civilizations rise and fall on one planet between visits. This gives them a unique culture that explains their behavior throughout the novel yet leaves them recognizably human. Vinge's far-future human civilizations share much in common with those of Alastair Reynolds, but Vinge's characters are not Reynolds's post-human aliens that I can barely identify with. Likewise, his far-future society has actually been affected, culturally and genetically, by living scattered among the stars centuries after leaving Earth, unlike the Star Trek banal familiarity of Dan Simmons's and Peter F. Hamilton's universes.
The story begins with a Qeng Ho captain seeking one of the ancestors of all the Qeng Ho to recruit him for a mission to a recently-discovered star system with unique astrophysical characteristics and an uncontacted native civilization. The mystery of who Pham Nuwen is, introduced in the prologue, seems to disappear into irrelevance for the first half of the book, and then takes center stage as one of the greatest and most human heroes in SF history chews up the scenery for the rest of the book. Pham Nuwen is a genius, a hero, a bastard, an autocrat, and the living embodiment of "old age and treachery will defeat youth and skill every time." You wouldn't trust him with your lunch money, but if you're fighting a hopeless battle against impossible odds, you want him on your side.
The Qeng Ho arrive at the OnOff star, which "ignites" every few centuries and gives its sole planet a few decades of liveable warmth before going dormant again, at the same time as another starfaring civilization: the Emergents. The Emergents are a tyrannical society ruled with an iron hand, but the Qeng Ho are used to dealing with hard customers, so they form an alliance with the Emergents to share the treasures of the OnOff star and its inhabited world.
Then comes a series of brilliant and horrible acts of treachery, leaving Qeng Ho and Emergents locked together in a death-grip while they wait for the planet below to come alive again. The humans' plan is to wait (and maybe help a little) for the Spiders to become technologically advanced enough to help them rebuild their ships. Except there are schemes within schemes and factions within factions among the Qeng Ho and Emergents, and depending on who gets their way, the Spiders may join humans in a great interspecies renaissance, or be crushed in an apocalyptic bloodbath.
The rest of the book alternates between the POV of the humans, biding their time in space, and that of the Spiders, who are just barely entering their industrial age as they emerge from hibernation this cycle. At first I was skeptical about the presentation of the Spiders; they are, quite literally, spiders, except that as we meet them and learn about their culture, it sounds very much like a quaint late-19th/early-20th century human civilization where all the people just happen to be giant alien spiders. The Spiders have very human personalities and traditions and motivations and biases, and if not for the occasional mentions of biological differences like "eating hands" and "baby eyes" and chitin, it would be easy to forget that these characters are actually arachnids.
We are, however, seeing the Spiders filtered through a human POV (thanks to a complicated set-up that is explained in detail in the book), and towards the end, when humans and Spiders finally meet, Vinge gives the reader a sense of just how alien the Spiders are when not "translated" into human perceptions. Yet they do remain relatable characters.
Besides a great story that never broke its pacing or tension nor went too long without throwing a twist, A Deepness in the Sky has great, great characters. You become really invested in the fates of the human and Spider characters alike. There are individual acts of bravery and cowardice, heartbreak and heroism and cunning and treachery, and you just want so badly for things to work out well for the sympathetic POV characters, and for all these horrible wrongs to be righted. Few villains have ever moved me to hatred like Tomas Nau and Ritser Brughel. By the end of the book, I wanted to see them get theirs so badly I could taste it.
If you've read a lot of my SF reviews, you know that I love the genre but I'm also damned critical, and even books I like I will tear apart for being too cliched, too recycled, too inside-baseball-for-geeks, too pandering, too superficial, etc. I demand a lot of my science fiction. I'll still read and enjoy the mediocre stuff, but nowadays it takes a lot for me to stand up and cheer.
Vernor Vinge is awesome. I have not a single negative thing to say about A Deepness in the Sky. It's pure sci-fi chocolatey goodness: smart, epic, exciting, and it has space battles and explosions! And I loved them!
Verdict: If you are a science fiction fan, why haven't you read this yet? An unqualified recommendation for anyone who likes epic space adventure that never suffers from bad prose or rote genre tropes. A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep are both on my Top Ten list of great SF.
Also by Vernor Vinge: My review of A Fire Upon the Deep.