Monday, August 13, 2012

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge)

Vernor Vinge is a modern prophet. The inventor and populariser of the idea of a Singularity. Like Niven, a mathematician as well as a science fiction writer.

His most famous book is A Fire Upon the Deep. It's a clever and enjoyable book containing several excellent ideas, and it has a minor character in it called Pham Nuwen, who vaguely remembers the Slow Zone and the trading empire called the Qeng Ho.

Vinge's Universe is divided into regions, in order to avoid the modern science fiction writer's difficulty that even the very near future is likely to be incomprehensibly weird.

Gravity is opposed to Mind and Speed, so that the center of the Galaxy, the Unthinking Depths, is a place where no mind can exist at all.

The Slow Zone, which contains the Earth, can support human-level organic minds, and slower than lightspeed travel, but that's it.

Further from the core, you get the Beyond, where you can go as fast as you like and good computers are possible.

And after that, the Transcend, where intelligent minds become Gods and there is a Power known as The Old One, because it has been in continuous existence for ten full years.

I'm pretty sure that the reason for this scheme is that Vinge can't see how to set an interesting future story in the real laws of physics, where any technology much in advance of ours will just undergo Singularity and become a sphere of incomprehensible superintelligence expanding and destroying at the speed of light. He wants to play with these ideas but he has to keep a place where humans can exist in order to tell a story.

I was expecting the sequel, A Deepness in the Sky to be more of the same, to be honest.

But actually no, it's set entirely in the Slow Zone. It tells the story of Pham Nuwen and the Qeng Ho, and it tells this story as part of telling another excellent story about a single incident towards the end of Pham Nuwen's life, when he becomes involved in a first contact mission to an alien civilization.

The Spiders are the sympathetic characters here. They're very believable and actually quite interestingly alien, but also recognisably mid-20th century British. While the humans are the weird, monstrous lurking evil presence in space.

By the end of the book, you're completely rooting for the lovable aliens against the human space monsters.

The nice thing is that this is done whilst telling the entire story from the human point of view, and despite the fact that most of the humans are themselves sympathetic and likeable.

It's an unbelievable tour de force of shifting viewpoints and interwoven stories. Roles change around as the stories unfold and there are real and unexpected heroes and villians and victims.

This joins "Protector" and "The Sparrow" on my list of favourite books of all time. It's just much much better than its predecessor (and sequel) A Fire Upon the Deep, which is itself an entertaining, imaginative, thoughtful and important novel.

If I wrote science fiction, I'd like it to be like this. In the way that Sinatra sings the way I'd sing if I could. I'm now going to methodically hunt down and read everything Vinge has ever written.

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