Book: A deepness in the sky - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: A deepness in the sky
Thursday, 02 February 2006 at 10:59 am
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Author: Vernor Vinge

Details: (c) Vernor Vinge 1999; Pub Millennium 2000; ISBN 1-85798-851-5

Verdict: A deepness in the sky is a thrilling story and handles all the elements of traditional SF really well.

Reasons for reading it: A deepness in the sky is a (fairly tenuously linked) prequel to A fire upon the deep, which I enjoyed.

How it came into my hands: Birthday present from lethargic_man. Thank you, that's most appreciated!

A deepness in the sky is really, really exciting as a story. There's enormous variation in emotional tone, and I cared about all of it; there were no boring bits, but plenty of different aspects that were exciting in different ways. The multiple viewpoints thing works very well, and to my surprise I didn't get annoyed by the jumping about between different threads at cliffhanger points. The structure is really impressive, with all the subthreads coming together in a final crisis that manages to be a step up from the already exciting buildup. Although aDitS is longer than most of what I prefer to read, its length and complexity are actually advantages rather than flaws.

On a different level, I also enjoyed Vinge's sense of scale when it comes to worldbuilding. A pan-galactic empire is not simply a scaled up version of the kinds of structures that exist at the level of scale we're used to. There's a convincing impression of vast distances and vast timescales and seriously complicated software, and worlds that have enough detail to be actual worlds (rather than the more expected overgrown cities), even though there are lots of them.

ADitS is almost a distillation of everything that a reader might look for in SF: worldbuilding, and spaceships, and interplanetary exploration, and cool techy stuff, and a first contact scenario (with translation issues, yay!), and a personal battle between two titans with futuristic (but carefully finite) technology at their disposal. I very much enjoyed the dynamics of that, with Nau as a plausible villain who doesn't fall too much into the Evil Overlord errors, and Pham as an interestingly flawed hero.

The gender stuff is a lot less annoying than in A fire upon the deep. There's still an element of intelligent women playing the role normally filled by women with big breasts in second-rate genre stuff, and a rather heavy reliance on rape for emotional impact for my tastes, but it's really not too bad at all. And I did like Trixia's choice at the end, giving just that little fillip to the expectations of people pairing up in the happy ending.

I don't want to give the impression that aDitS is unoriginal; to some extent it's doing conventional stuff well, yes, but there's plenty of novelty to the writing at a local scale. All in all, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read and I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't actively hate SF.


Moooood: pleasedpleased
Tuuuuune: Beth Orton: Central reservation
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lethargic_man: recent
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 5th, 2006 08:11 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 08:11 pm (lethargic_man's time)

A Deepness in the Sky

(Link)
One thing I really like about this book (and I've said this to you before, but for the benefit of anyone who hasn't heard me wibble about it) is the way it features lots of little scientific puzzles for the reader to work out, some of which are never explained, and some of which are, but only much later in the book. I like it; it strikes me as the science equivalent of the sort of arts-based symbolism you get in literary novels, which I never manage to spot.

An example: The novel takes place on a planet whose star turns off completely for 220 years out of every 250. When we first encounter the Spiders, the aliens living on this planet, they're at early twentieth-century tech level, and fighting a war as their planet cools down towards freezing, each side trying to gain a strategic advantage over the other before retiring into hibernation until the start of the next solar cycle. We hear one of them report they'd hoped radio would be holding out to the end, but to their disappointment, it was now line-of-sight only.

This is never explained, it's left for the reader to work out that radio propagates beyond line-of-sight by the radio waves bouncing up and down between the ionosphere and the land. The ionosphere is generated by the interaction of the solar wind with the planet's magnetic field; so when the sun turns off, the solar wind stops and the ionosphere collapses, and radio is restricted to line-of-sight transmissions.

Or (second example) the non-explanation of the star appearing to relight at the point directly closest to Arachna: it was due to lightspeed delays between the nearest and furthest points on the star.

Or (third example), why did Arachna not cool much more quickly than it actually did? Only in the last 250 pages does Vinge tells us of the fact its temperature was all bar plateauing until all the water had solidified, whereupon there would be a "thermal collapse" until the temperature would be sustained again a while by the energy of crystallisation of oxygen and nitrogen. Aaargh, I should have got that but didn't! I had forgotten those experiments I did in school when I was 13 to measure the energy of crystallisation of water!

I'm surprised you didn't mention the interesting aliens, biologically plausible to the extent of the evolution that had led to them.

seriously complicated software,

I like the whole business about software archaeology. Did you spot the throwaway line implying that the oldest levels are based on Unix? (It talks about the Queng Ho calendar starting not, as often thought, when man first set foot on the Moon, but shortly afterwards, at the start time of the calendar of an operating system of the period.)

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livredor: p53
From:livredor
Date:February 5th, 2006 08:55 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 08:55 pm (livredor's time)
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I sort of liked the scientific puzzles and allusions, but didn't pay all that much attention to them, because that would have required me to read slower, and I was too excited to do that. I did not work out what was going on with the radio and the ionosphere; that's too much like geography for me! But I did see what was going on with the setup about cooling rates.

The aliens are cool, but that's part of what I meant by a good take on a first contact scenario. Also, they're not as cool as the aliens in A fire upon the deep, and not as cool as rysmiel's. I did like that the scientific underpinnings include biology, not just physics.

And the description of a large mass of water when there's no gravity is very, very cool!

I enjoyed the software archaeology thing, that's part of what I mean about liking the way Vinge tackles problems of scale.
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rysmiel: mary magnum
From:rysmiel
Date:February 6th, 2006 03:55 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:55 am (rysmiel's time)
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Also, they're not as cool as the aliens in A fire upon the deep, and not as cool as rysmiel's.

*blush*
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lethargic_man: recent
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 5th, 2006 08:12 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 08:12 pm (lethargic_man's time)

A Deepness in the Sky

(Link)
Spoilers follow:

Did you think that Sherkaner Underhill survived at the end? Me, I suspect not. Given that he'd been getting old and his intellect winding down, and all his "discoveries" of the previous twenty years had in fact been communicated to him by Trixia Bonsol, I suspect he just wanted one last Walk in the Dark like his Walk in the Dark 250 years earlier, before he died.

A deepness in the sky is a (fairly tenuously linked) prequel to A fire upon the deep.

On the contrary, I think it's quite closely linked; you just have to look beneath the surface to see the connection. The presumably intended interpretation of the OnOff star mystery, for example, is that the star was settled when its elliptical loop through the Galaxy took it through either the Beyond or even the Transcend. The diamond foraminefera are machines for operating in the Beyond; "cavorite" is machines designed in the Beyond (or Transcend) for operation in the Slow Zone.

Presumably the mass extinction fifty million years ago was caused either by the system entering the Unthinking Depths, or by the stellar interaction that stripped away OnOff's other planets. Maybe it wasn't an extinction so much as an evacuation by sentients who knew where the system was heading.

Here's something I completely missed: We know that the OnOff star doesn't really go "out", because it doesn't collapse under its own gravity -- which, incidentally, is something I had assumed it was doing until Vinge explicitly said it did not. What I'd forgotten was that Countermeasure made the star of the Tines world go dim too (at which point Pham was indoors so he couldn't notice it and make any deductions). The inferrence is that the OnOff star is doing some zone manipulation.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:February 5th, 2006 09:06 pm (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 09:06 pm (livredor's time)
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Given that he'd been getting old and his intellect winding down
I didn't think that was the case at all; I assumed that was just a front to put everyone off the scent. I assumed he was still just as much of a genius, but pretending to be senile so that he wouldn't attract military interest.

all his "discoveries" of the previous twenty years had in fact been communicated to him by Trixia Bonsol
That's not how I read it either. I got the idea that he had figured loads of stuff out for himself (such as what was going on with the Emergents and Qeng Ho, which Trixia presumably couldn't have known), and was just getting details from Trixia. And the setup with the Lighthill brigade to foil the Emergents' plan was all his idea. I thought Arachna's technological process was partly depending on information fed from Trixia, yeah (such as the papers by "T. Lurksalot"), but Underhill also succeeded in setting up an academic infrastructure, so some of the inventions were genuinely native. Not necessarily all made up by him personally, but products of the thousands of grad students he'd inspired. There are a lot of tech solutions the Spiders would have needed that would be specific to their planetary conditions, they couldn't only be relying on Trixia (who after all is not an engineer, she's a translator!)
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:February 5th, 2006 09:10 pm (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 09:10 pm (livredor's time)
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Oh, I don't deny that there are links between the two books; the character of Pham is the most obvious one! But each book works perfectly well on its own, and it's mainly little subtle details which connect them. A bit like the scientific puzzles, they're something for an astute reader who knows A fire upon the deep to feel pleased about spotting, but they're not central to the story. You don't need to know anything about the Zones of Thought, since the entire book and all the background takes place within a consistent Zone, apart from the anomaly of the OnOff star. And that just works as a self-standing premise, I think.
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lethargic_man: recent
From:lethargic_man
Date:February 5th, 2006 08:14 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 08:14 pm (lethargic_man's time)

A Deepness in the Sky

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More spoilers follow

Some people in rasf.w had theories about the OnOff star having been made by the Blight, and the star being embedded in a bubble of Beyond or Transcend, but I don't think either of those is right. Firstly, I like the idea that the OnOff star was one of the Zone-maintaining stars in the Galactic core; it was its interaction with another star which sent it out into its highly elliptical Galactic orbit.

And secondly, there's not really any firm evidence that any other Zone was involved in this story; and as someone pointed out, if this were the Transcend, the localiser network would probably have spontaneously Transcended. Most likely, any Zone manipulation that this star is carrying out is, like whatever is absorbing the star's light, hidden somewhere beneath the star's photosphere.

I had a flick back through the book to see if there was anything for second-time readers to see regarding the time when Trixia Bonsol revealed the humans' presence to the Spiders. There's nothing there directly, but this _does_ happen at the same point in the book that Pham is revealing his own plans to Ezr Vinh, which is clever. (There's also references to things like "Critter number four responding positively" at a point before the first-time reader was aware that the "critters" were actually the humans.)

Another thing from A Fire Upon the Deep was the mention that Pham Nuwen had red hair. It's probably just as well that his memory is riddled with holes and he was unable to work out who he might have got it from when his body was reassembled from an assortment of severed parts...

What did you think of the Spiders wanting to stay awake through the Dark? Call me a trad, but I thought the prospect of generations living and dying without ever seeing the sun was quite horrible. I thought they should have stayed as they were, with everyone apart perhaps from soldiers going into hibernation. (Those who did go into hibernation at the end of Generation 60 aren't going to recognise the world when they do wake up.)

Hmm, by the end of the book the youngest Spiders are about fifteen years old: the Spiders still haven't managed to overcome their biological infertility in the most out-of-phase period. That gives them twenty years or so to come up with a solution, otherwise they're going to have to choose between going into hibernation after all, or suffering from an ever-aging population without any next generation coming along. (Reckon they'd manage it?)
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rysmiel: wilde thing
From:rysmiel
Date:February 6th, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:59 am (rysmiel's time)

Re: A Deepness in the Sky

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Another thing from A Fire Upon the Deep was the mention that Pham Nuwen had red hair. It's probably just as well that his memory is riddled with holes and he was unable to work out who he might have got it from when his body was reassembled from an assortment of severed parts...

That was something that really hit me hard when I saw it from Deepness. That's the kind of impact that takes two sizable novels to make work, and I bet it works just as well reading aFutD second if you happen to come to them that way around.

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