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A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (Orion Millennium, £11.99, 607 pages, trade paperback; first published 24 June 1999.)

To appropriate a memorable image from his Hugo Award winning A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), Vernor Vinge has in A Deepness in the Sky written an epic about flies trapped in amber. The amber is physics and history; the flies are individuals and the civilizations of which they are part; and some of the flies are seeking to escape their imprisonment. Their struggle, hampered by inherent conservatism, by moral blindness, and by the obduracy of Nature, is the substance of one of the best constructed and most absorbing space operas of the decade.

Any reader familiar with A Fire Upon the Deep will soon come to realise the predicament of the humans and Spiders who populate Vinge's centuries-long story. Unknown to them (and to anyone who uninitiatedly reads A Deepness in the Sky), these beings dwell in a region of the Galaxy known to higher cultures as the Slow Zone, intermediate between the Unthinking Depths (the galactic Core), where intelligence and higher technology cannot exist, and the Beyond (the galactic periphery), where barriers such as the speed of light can readily be transcended. The Slow Zone permits rational thought, the rise of information societies, and slower-than-light space travel; but once those have been achieved, no further progress is possible. Ingenuity and enterprise cannot get around this simple fact. Civilizations and individuals strike a ceiling, and fall down into despair and disintegration; by the time A Deepness begins, this has, for the human race, been going on for eight thousand years.

Although unconscious that the Beyond exists and can be aspired towards (humans do eventually get there, but only some time before A Fire Upon the Deep, thirty thousand years further on), three leaders of genius seek a breakthrough. One, Pham Nuwen, who is virtually immortal courtesy of his long space voyages and consequent time dilation, long ago sought to utilise the interstellar trading fraternity, the Qeng Ho, as the basis for an empire that might break the cycles of history, rescue cultures from the collapse that inevitably fells them, and stabilise the chaos of Human Space. He failed, but he still has hopes. These focus on a mysterious variable star and its single planet, Arachna, which by some miracle bears intelligent alien life, and which by that token hints of new markets and profound technological possibilities. He heads there with a Qeng Ho flotilla. But a particularly brutal human feudalism, the Emergency, sends to Arachna its own fleet, headed by Thomas Nau, Vinge's second visionary, who plans conquest, not merely the trade anticipated by the Qeng Ho. Nau and Nuwen, similar but separated by a great moral gulf, inevitably clash; but matters are complicated further by the presence of a third genius, Sherkaner Underhill, the Einstein and Edison of Arachna's until now backward Spiders…

While delivering in full on the narrative promise of this buildup - he is a superb storyteller, expert and knowing in his exploitation of the raw stuff of space opera - Vinge systematically develops his deeper intellectual scheme. In the human half of the plot, Nau is triumphant in the opening space battle; he enslaves the Qeng Ho, converting some into expert slaves by means of an intricate brainwashing known as Focus. Nau, unaware that Pham Nuwen is lurking incognito among his new subjects, demonstrates how a government should not function. Feudal servitude, fascist coercion, totalitarian propaganda, and universal surveillance are instituted in the decades while the humans wait in L1 orbit for the Spiders to develop an economy advanced enough to exploit. But that Arachnid development is Vinge's demonstration of a libertarian counterargument to Nau's authoritarianism.

The Spiders have none of Nau's advantages. Their variable sun is dark for centuries at a time, during which they hibernate; their history's natural pace is slow even for the Slow Zone. Their instinctive orientation is cautious and inward, towards the caves or deepnesses in which they survive the Dark. Hardly aware of the existence of other solar systems or of the possibilities of space travel, they should be easy prey for Nau. But Sherkaner Underhill unleashes a ferment of innovation, pursuing an industrial revolution in the face of deeply ingrained cultural conservatism and militant fundamentalism. The inspired pursuit of technological advance leads the Spiders towards space. Adroitly lending this process an atmosphere and terminology reminiscent of successive stages of the history of Twentieth Century Britain and America (and so of phases of genre SF's history), Vinge implicitly proposes liberal meritocracy as a model superior to, and a cure for, the excesses of Nau's regime. The battle of the two systems is dramatic and instructive at once, the inadequacy of Nau's values being further shown by Pham Nuwen's cunning subversions on the humans' home front.

This ideological scheme, of progressive capitalism outsmarting collectivism, however excitingly couched, may seem designed to manipulate the reader. Certainly, the villains - the Emergent leaders, the Spiders of the reactionary Kindred - are clearly marked out for disapproval, Machiavellians of a singularly poisonous ruthlessness. Their keynote is hatred. Those on Vinge's right side - the surviving Qeng Ho, who must somehow overcome defeat, the Emergents who can reform, the progressive Spiders, especially the friends and family of Sherkaner Underhill - are, despite some flaws, highly sympathetic. They love long and intensely. But Vinge is too subtle, with too informed and far-reaching a comprehension, to succumb to such a simplistic political and moral division.

Vinge's reader is invited to see everything in a fascinating ironic perspective. All of the plot occurs in the Slow Zone. This is a desperate place. Desperation of an extreme kind is endemic to it. One of Vinge's most intriguing concepts is that of the "Age of Failed Dreams", the early period of humankind's expansion into space, when all hopes of utopia and miraculous technology turned out to be empty; disillusion has prevailed ever since. Desperate measures have appeal in this light: for all his idealism, Pham Nuwen longs for Empire for far longer than Thomas Nau (who is in a real sense his disciple), and is sorely tempted to steal the soul-destroying technology of Focus from him, for use in his own political programme. Vinge's larger point seems to be that, for those dwelling in a physical and existential prison, totalitarianism and the control it promises must always be a tantalising course. Democracy and meritocracy, although infinitely preferable, are a difficult alternative. Can they succeed in the long term? Vinge leaves that in doubt; when at novel's end Pham Nuwen (in ignorant inspiration) plans his voyage to escape the Slow Zone, he plots a course towards the galactic Core.

There is a bleakness in Vinge's writing, a counterpoint that haunts and subverts any simple optimism he may at times appear to proffer. In A Deepness in the Sky, his grandest space opera yet, he sets historical optimism and pessimism at war, and the novel's shrewd triumph is that neither is the winner.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 18 September 1999