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A Deepness in the Sky
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon February 20, 2013
Set twenty thousand years earlier than A Fire Upon The Deep, Vernor Vinge's second book in the Zones of Thought universe shares little and requires nothing of its companion volume. It's action alternates between the inhabitants of an alien world and human observers concealed in orbit above. The Spiders have developed pre-space flight technology and struggle with the 250-year freeze-and-thaw cycle of their planet's On/Off variable star. The orbiting humans consist of two factions. The Qeng Ho have goals of trade and communication. The Emergents have the more direct agenda of conquest and domination. As the book proceeds, we watch the Spiders develop technically and socially. Simultaneously, the more advanced Emergents and Qeng Ho intrigue, fight, integrate, intrigue and fight. It all works out much better than it should.

Like Vinge's other fiction, this book is host to a number of "big ideas" that take the stage along with the actions and inactions of the characters. They include:

An alien species--the Spiders--that seems far less alien than they really should. What seems like bad writing through much of the book is given a reasonable explanation in the end. These creatures are interesting and even--heaven help me--cute.

A variable star turns on and off at regular intervals. The possible explanations are intriguing as are its effects on the evolution of life on its planets.

A tailored "mindrot" virus produces various neurological effects, including an exaggerated ability to concentrate called "Focus." The virus is both a disease and an altered state that makes workers diligent, productive and savant-like. It has uses and abuses, not always easy to distinguish.

A flexible, self-organizing network technology constructed of large numbers of simple processors massively interconnected. The security and flexibility of the resulting "mesh networks" are explored by their Qeng Ho and Emergent users.

If you plan to also read A Fire Upon The Deep, then read it first for the most enjoyable experience. That said, this book can stand on its own and is good, enjoyable space opera. The story has its darker elements, but is well-worth a persistent reading. With good justification, it is considered one of science fiction's classics.
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on June 29, 2015
Not very good. Predictable, saccharine, super super boring. I only finished this book out of stubbornness. The reason for 2 stars and not one: interesting vocabulary; I learned some new words. The characters are 2 dimensional. The ending is trite. Save your time and money.
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on June 14, 1999
Having read and loved A Fire Upon The Deep and Across Realtime, I had high expectations for this novel. Unfortunately, I feel that this book did not live up to the scope and vastness of Vinge's previous works. As a science fiction book it wasn't bad; the plot kept my interest, and the characters weren't all bad. What lacked were the awe-inspiring vistas of his other books... the universe seemed so much smaller in "Deepness". Science Fiction attracts us with those little glimpses of a larger world to which humanity shrinks in insignificance, and this was the one quality I found lacking, both in the plot and in the concepts presented. As for his aliens-- any of the briefly mentioned alien species in "Fire" were vastly more interesting than the "spiders". The best thing about this book was the disturbing use of mind control and the violation associated with it... gave it another star for that alone. All in all, a good read, but not as good as some of Vinge's other works.
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on June 1, 2000
Ever since I read Vinge's "Across Realtime", he hasbeen on my (all too) short list of SciFi authors worth reading. FireUpon the Deep and this newest book have reinforced my initial enthusiasm. Some of the requirements for great hard SciFi are i) Interesting technical ideas, ii) Thought-provoking interaction between technology and plot, and iii) Intriguing characters (not necessarily deep and complex). I think Vinge hits it big on all counts. The concepts of focus slavery, nets of mote-like locators (a cyberpunk type of device), the perils of superlegacy software carried out to the nth degree, and the real constraints of time delays (the use of suspended animation is reminiscent of Across Realtime's stasis bubbles) keep you thinking. The "bad guys" are very spooky in their methods of manipulating the non-emergent races like so much walking meat. I'm trying to think of something I felt lacking in this book--- nope, can't think of anything worth pointing out! I really don't understand people's complaints that there isn't a stronger link between this "prequel" and Fire Upon the Deep. Why must everything follow the now standard trilogy approach? I respect folks who avoid the lure of $$$ income from turning the crank on serial trilogy (tetrology, pentology, polyology...) marketing, and I GREATLY enjoyed this book on its own merit. Fantastic job once again, Vernor!
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on March 10, 1999
Rarely is an author's second book in a scifi universe as good as the first, particularly when the first was as good as "A Fire Upon the Deep". "A Deepness in the Sky" is better, which makes it both a rarity and the hands down choice for this year's Hugo. It has masterfully drawn characters, both human-Pham Trinli, the ancient Queng Ho trader who is more than he seems, and Tomas Nau, the superficially pleasant but utterly evil Podmaster of the Emergents-and alien-Sherkaner Underhill, a combination Einstein, Von Neuman, and Edison from the "Spider" civilization on a planet circling the On-Off star that the Queng Ho and Emergent fleets come to investigate, and where they nearly destroy each other. The reader identifies so well with the Spider characters that through their eyes we see how we might react if we discovered members of an alien starfaring civilization "lurking" in our solar system. But most importantly, this book has the Vinge sense of wonder that sneaks up on you throughout the story. It's a lot like flying in a small plane over the lip of the Grand Canyon-one instant, roads, cars, and scrub; the next, an expanse that takes your breath away.
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on June 14, 2000
Not as grand and universe-spanning as "A Fire Upon the Deep": "Deepness" takes place entirely in the Slow Zone, the part of the galaxy where you can't travel faster than light or make really high-tech gadgets, and the time when AI and nanotech seemed possible is known as The Age of Failed Dreams. Many reviewers have noted the dramatic irony: a reader who has read "Fire Upon the Deep" knows why the dreams failed and progress always seems to stagnate, but the characters in the book (and readers who haven't read "Fire") can only wonder.
Most of the characters in the book are human. Even the non-human aliens, the Spiders, are awfully human in culture and psychology if not in body-shape; this makes it easier to have them sympathetic characters, but misses the chance to illuminate human nature by showing something else (in this respect "Deepness" reminds me of Robert Forward's annoying "Camelot 30K", in which the alien society is essentially medieval England).
I have one structural gripe with "Deepness": something Very Important happens at around page 350, and continues happening through most of the rest of the book, but we don't find out about it until page 700 or so, where it provides a rather jarring deus ex machina for Our Heros. I'll admit it was a fun surprise, but I'm not sure Vinge was quite justified in keeping it from us all that time.
But anyway, the aliens, the human trader culture (the Queng Ho, happy capitalists who travel from star to star doing whatever business there is to do) and the Bad Guy culture (the Emergents, smiling fascists with one Big Secret) are interesting in themselves, and they clash in insightul and convincing ways, and there is enough cool scientific and cultural tech to keep any geek happy. It's a very good book (including various fun things I haven't mentioned), and it's part of the development of a fascinating future history.
(A direct sequel seems likely, as Queng Ho founder Pham Nuwen has to get himself frozen so he can show up millennia later in "Fire Upon the Deep", and the smartest Spider vanishes mysteriously and is (har har) presumed dead.)
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on December 11, 2000
How do I do justice to this book in a short review? First, the good points, and there are many. The concept of Focus -- 10! I am forever changed after obtaining this concept from Vinge: thanks! The OnOff star and Spider World -- 8. The Qeng Ho -- 9.5. Pham Nuwen -- 8. The Emergents - 2.5: why do I keep seeing shades of the House Harkonnen here? The Qeng Ho and Emergents don't really seem different races; different political parties maybe. The many great digs at software as an "engineering" discipline when it is in fact a cosmic mess in the making (shades of "The Mythical Man-Month") -- 8.5: now where did the satire on Bill Gates go? :) The trouble with reviewing the book is that the author has so many great ideas he doesn't seem to have the power to deal with to a satisfying resolution. For instance, he harps on how one shouldn't underestimate the ability of Focus to make the Focused loyal to their masters, then, ahem, you have to read to the ending to see how he discards it to give us a "surprise ending". Similarly, the realization that there never will be any "warp drives", or any "artificial intelligence", yet his acceptance of ramscoops, which go against too many known laws of physics to be worth more than the few novels they engendered already. The spider people: here he seems to have hit his head on his own limits. He tries to beg his own question, so to speak, of how horrible creatures that humans instinctively cringe at can develop higher intelligence, even love and morality, and still enjoy "cold sucks", with a "trick" that some may swallow, but for me it just left me wanting a better, more imaginative author to drive the "ramscoop" of the novel into my psyche. The one-dimensionality of the spider world was also disappointing. Are humans alone in having "good" and "bad" guys? Why wouldn't the spiders adopt Focus to their own ends? For that matter, why wouldn't certain unscrupulous Qeng Ho? Does Pham Nuwen tell them all what to do? Nuwen, also, doesn't quite cut it as a hero; while I tried, I couldn't quite care about him, nor, for that matter, any of the characters of any species. When the nukes were flying, I really didn't care if they all got vaporized, and I can't imagine anybody else who would either, including the author: the plot was all we cared to survive. I also couldn't understand how the OnOff star was essential to the evolution of sapience in spiders rather than, for instance, woolly mammoths. The Epilogue attempted, I think, to put the novel into a grander space frame, but to me it only destroyed the last illusion that the fictional world was real: the idea that "superbeings" left "all this" long ago for the human Qeng Ho to stumble onto, frankly, sucked eggplant. Still, this is a novel that provokes deep thoughts. If only the author had spent less energy on his academic career and more on his novelist career, he might have punched-through to the latent novel that was "in there" somewhere... I give it 4 out of 5 stars.
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on February 11, 2001
I just finished reading, this, the HUGO award winner for yr. 2000. So far, Mr. Vinge hasn't disappointed me with any of his books. His latest is a masterpiece. After reading "A Fire Upon the Deep" I was interested very much in this man called Pham Nuwen and his exploits BEFORE the "Old One" from the beyond put him together and gave him "godshatter". But that was in a different book.
In the next Vinge book I expected to read more about the life of Pham Nuwen and how he came to be. At the beginning I was a little disappointed, but when the Pham Nuwen character started his rise to the top to not only save himself, and the Qeng Ho, but save those mysterious "Spiders". And I was completely amazed at the characterizations of the spiders, a wholly alien culture, but very well rendered for human beings to understand. We saw them through their eyes, NOT our eyes, and this simple, creative ploy by Vernor was enough to elevate this story for me, especially when we finally see them through Human Eyes!
But finally, the story of Pham Nuwen, his rise from medieval Prince and his almost defeat at Brisco Gap is marvelous. And although I would have preferred a full book about this story, I would never have enjoyed the insights into Pham's character if the story was not told in Pham's future, looking back on it.
A very enjoyable read, good enough to stay up all night to finish!
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on June 16, 1999
Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky is a wonderful book, one of the best SF novels of the last few years. It's got an interesting plot, well drawn characters, and thoughtful ideas.
I mostly want to respond to one reviewer who said, "The spiders are so anthropomorphic as to be embarrassing." This reader seemed to have not read carefully. The presentation of the spiders is set up as a translation. Vinge is presenting a new approach to the classic translators problem -- do you translate literally or do you translate in a way that makes your audience get the feel but in the they can relate to? Vinge uses the latter approach with the alien species. For example, the spiders are presented as going down a spiral staircase, because what they are walking down is their equivalent of what for humans would be a spiral staircase, so for humans to "feel" what the spiders felt toward it, it is presented that way. Vinge gives us a couple of glimpses of the spiders that aren't through the translators glasses. There it's clear that the spiders are not the least anthromorphic.
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on October 18, 2000
Like a previous reviewer, I had just about given up on the SF genre. Then, I read this book, because I thought it would illuminate some of Vinge's ideas about the "singularity." I don't know that it really did that very much, but it turned out to be one *terrific* story.
Unlike, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson in the Mars trilogy, Vinge doesn't deluge you with huge amounts of technical detail; but he does introduce enough of it to make the story interesting as SCIENCE fiction. He introduces the idea, and gives you just enough of it so that you can connect the dots with your imagination. Unlike Clark, and Robinson, and others, he imbues his novel with a real sense of high drama. Like Gibson, he uses cyberspace concepts liberally, but unlike Gibson, he has characters to whom I can relate. Some reviewers have said that these characters are a bit lacking in depth--but I say that the depth they are lacking is itself realistic--these are people in extreme situations, and their lives are restricted in just the ways that real people would be "flattened" by such things.
Imagining a race of intelligent spiders is a very ambitious notion, and it has to lead to some very improbable scenes; but I think Vinge has imagined them about as well as anyone else has. And the more attempts are made, the more subsequent writers will have on which to build even more fastastic worlds.
One thing I find really fascinating is the very notion of slavery in a setting like this, the *exquisite* mechanisms of control that would be required to maintain it, and the brittleness that control might have in the face of a determined saboteur like Pham Nuwen.
Think carefully, though, about the memes that may be getting injected into your brain as you read this. One thing that bothers me a little is the way one individual is built into such a central figure, in each of the environments. In the case of Pham, it's probably both plausible and necessary (wide conspiracies are hard to keep secret). But to have one genius responsible for so much of the progress on the spider world seems a real stretch. And think on the traders-->good guys, slavers-->bad guys angle, in relation to current global reality. You may be being soft-peddled something, to use the obvious play on words. OTOH the spiders seem to do most of their impressive stuff through their public institutions, so the book doesn't seem to be voicing an extreme political agenda.
The problem of legacy software getting out of hand is something I find troublesome, partly because I see it happening already. The value of computers should be in their ability to help in keeping things ordered. If they introduce even more exquisite forms of disorder, that calls into question whether we're on the right course, to say the least.
The copy editing left a bit to be desired. There were lots of random typos, and quite a few missing words--more than I'm used to in this kind of book.
Unlike some reviewers, I didn't think the ending was too rushed, or OTOH too drawn-out. Still, for all the important "good guys" to live did verge on the unrealistic just a bit.
There are some important questions left unanswered here, and apparently AFUTD doesn't address them; so a true sequel, that picks up where this story leaves off, I'd welcome.
All in all, I found it engrossing, and look forward to reading *A Fire Upon The Deep* soon.
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