A Deepness in the Sky


A Deepness in the Sky‘ is a novel by mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge. Published in 1999, the novel is a loose prequel (set twenty thousand years earlier) to his 1992 novel ‘A Fire Upon the Deep’ (set thousands of years into the future). The title is coined by one of the story’s main characters in a debate, in a reference to the hibernating habits of his species and to the vastness of space.

The plot begins with the discovery of an intelligent alien species on a planet orbiting an anomalous star, dubbed ‘On/Off’ because for 215 of every 250 years it is dormant, releasing almost no energy. During this period, the planet freezes and its fauna go into hibernation.

The planet’s inhabitants, called ‘Spiders’ by the humans for their resemblance to arachnids, have reached a stage of technological development very similar to that of Earth’s humans in the early 20th century, although humans believe that they may once have been capable of space travel. If this is true, then whoever can establish ties with the aliens first could reap unimaginable rewards; humans have made contact with only one other intelligent (but non-technological) alien species in millennia of travel through the stars.

Two human groups launch expeditions to the Spider world: the ‘Qeng Ho’ (pronounced Cheng Ho and named after Chinese explorer Zheng He), traders who have developed a common interstellar culture for humanity; and the ‘Emergents,’ an authoritarian civilization that literally enslaves selected human minds and has only recently re-emerged from a Dark Age. The Qeng Ho arrive at the On/Off star shortly before the Emergent fleet, a few years before the sun turns on, at which point the Spider civilization will ‘wake up’ and continue its climb into a technological civilization. A reception held by the Emergents doubles as a vector to infect the Qeng Ho with a timed ‘mindrot’ virus. The Emergents time an ambush to take advantage of the onset of symptoms.

During these events, a concurrent history of the Spider civilization unfolds – mainly through the picaresque, and then increasingly political and technocratic, experiences of a small group of liberal-minded and progressive Spiders. Their struggles against ignorance and obsolescent traditions are colored with oddly human-like descriptions and nomenclature, prefiguring some major plot revelations towards the end of the story. Far above, after a close fight, the Emergents subjugate the Qeng Ho; but losses to both sides force them to combine and adopt the so-called ‘Lurker strategy,’ monitoring and aiding the Spiders’ technological development, waiting until they build up the massive infrastructure and technological base that the visitors need in order to repair their vessels.

The mindrot virus originally manifested itself on the Emergents’ home world as a devastating plague, but they subsequently mastered it and learned to use it both as a weapon and as a tool for mental domination. Emergent technicians can manipulate the pathogen in order to release neurotoxins to specific parts of the brain. An active MRI-type device triggers changes through dia- and paramagnetic biological molecules. By manipulating the brain in this way, Emergent managers induce obsession with a single idea or specialty, which they call ‘Focus,’ essentially turning people into brilliant appliances. Many Qeng Ho become Focused against their will, and the Emergents retain the rest of the population under mass surveillance, with only a portion of the crew not in suspended animation. The Qeng Ho trading culture gradually starts to dilute this totalitarian regime, by demonstrating to the Emergents certain benefits of tolerated and restricted free trade; the two human cultures merge to some extent over the decades of forced co-operation.

Pham Nuwen, the founder of the Qeng Ho trading culture, is living aboard the fleet under the pseudonym Pham Trinli, posing as an inept and bumbling fleet elder. He subverts the Emergents’ own oppressive security systems through a series of high-risk ruses. During his plotting he begins to admire the Emergents’ Focus technology, leading him to evaluate its usage in his own plans for the future of the fleet. The plan to wrest fleet control from the Emergents, however, requires the cooperation of a much younger Qeng Ho who, through attrition, has become the Qeng Ho ‘Fleet Manager.’

His position as the unique liaison officer between Qeng Ho and Emergents leads him to despair, and he accepts Pham Nuwen’s offer to join a plot against the Emergents as a way to personal redemption as well as to take revenge against the Emergents. However, his understanding of Pham’s ambitions for Focus technology leads to a confrontation between them over the future use of Focus by the Qeng Ho. Coming to an understanding, the two seize the critical moment when the Emergents attempt to provoke a nuclear war on the Spider home-world in order to seize power. By subverting the Emergents’ management systems and by luck and with essential help of the Spiders, they defeat the ruling class of the Emergents.

No longer in hiding, the combined Emergent/Qeng Ho fleet now negotiates with the Spider civilization as a trading partner. Pham announces his plans to free all of the Focused in the entire Emergent civilization, and, if he survives that, to go to the center of the galaxy to find the source of the On/Off star and the strange technology remnants that have clearly traveled with it.

The book discusses some of the problems of trying to maintain an interstellar trading culture without access to superluminal travel or to superluminal communication. Time-measurement details provide an interesting concept in the book: the Qeng Ho measure time primarily in terms of seconds, since the notion of days, months, and years has no usefulness between various star-systems. The timekeeping system uses terms such as kiloseconds (1000 seconds, or about 17 minutes) and megaseconds (1 million seconds, or roughly 11.6 days).

The Qeng Ho’s computer and timekeeping systems feature the advent of ‘programmer archaeologists’: the Qeng Ho are packrats of computer programs and systems, retaining them over millennia, even as far back to the era of Unix programs (as implied by one passage mentioning that the fundamental timekeeping system is the Unix epoch: ‘Take the Traders’ method of timekeeping. The frame corrections were incredibly complex – and down at the very bottom of it was a little program that ran a counter. Second by second, the Queng Ho counted from the instant that a human had first set foot on Old Earth’s moon. But if you looked at it still more closely … the starting instant was actually about fifteen million seconds later, the 0-second of one of Humankind’s first computer operating systems.’ This massive accumulation of data implies that almost any useful program one could want already exists in the Qeng Ho fleet library, hence the need for computer archaeologists to dig up needed programs, work around their peculiarities and bugs, and assemble them into useful constructs.

With this work, Vinge introduces ‘localizers’ to his set of science-fiction concepts. Localizers are tiny devices which can contain a simple processor, sensors, and short-range communications. Vinge explores how intelligent control can use mesh networking of these devices in ways quite different from those of traditional computer networks.

Only one concrete connection links ‘A Deepness in the Sky’ with ‘A Fire Upon the Deep’: the character of Pham Nuwen, the ‘Programmer-at-Arms,’ who appears in both books. Hints occur about the ‘Zones of Thought’ mentioned in ‘Fire.’ That novel posits that space around the Milky Way is divided into concentric layers called ‘Zones,’ each being constrained by different laws of physics and each allowing for different degrees of biological and technological advancement. The innermost, the ‘Unthinking Depths,’ surrounds the galactic core and is incapable of supporting advanced life forms at all. The next layer, the ‘Slow Zone,’ is roughly equivalent to the real world in behavior and potential. Further out, the zone named the ‘Beyond’ can support futuristic technologies such as AI and FTL travel. The outermost zone, the ‘Transcend,’ contains most of the galactic halo and is populated by incomprehensibly vast and powerful posthuman entities.

‘A Deepness in the Sky’ takes place in the Slow Zone, though Vinge does not explain the connections, and the characters in the story remain unaware of the zones’ existence. The sun’s inexplicably strange behavior, the unusual planetary system (with only a solitary planet and several asteroid-sized diamonds), and the discovery of ‘cavorite’ on the planet may indicate the system originated in the Transcend, though it is currently moving outward from the Unthinking Depths. Vinge’s characters speculate that the Spiders descend from an ancient star-faring civilization, and that the anti-gravity material and other strange artifacts have connections with that civilization. Unfortunately, they guess the structure of the Zones (though not the actual properties) backwards, coming to the conclusion that the bright center of the galaxy is the most likely location for advanced civilization. This leads Pham on his path inwards to the Unthinking Depths, and his eventual resurrection.

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