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On A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky is the prequel to A Fire upon the Deep, and both are considered some of the best of recent science fiction. I liked AFUD a lot, especially in the way Vinge took the entire Milky Way as his canvas, and then made its spiral shape and the distribution of stars the primary element of what he called “Zones of Thought”. These Zones of Thought are such that life evolves more slowly near the center of the galaxy, while at the edge of the galaxy there exist Godlike powers – some of which are certainly the result of artificial intelligences created by men. Whether God actually exists is somewhat more in question, but not at all denied. Although I’m skeptical about the validity of all this, Vinge is writing about events tens of thousands of years in the future, when science has advanced far beyond the barely-beyond-the-stone-age age in which we now live. I also liked the planet he imagined within this system, where wolf-like creatures have crossed the threshold of symbolization and achieved a kind of civilization based on their ability to think in packs of four or more. Well, it seemed more plausible in the actual reading of the story.

DITS takes place some unspecified time earlier, when the most important starfaring civilization is on the verge of making first contact with aliens that have not evolved from earth. This civilization is made up of a federation of traders that seems based on the 17th century Hanseatic League, except that they’re actually called the “Qeng Ho” – a name that is more probably based on “Zheng He”, a 14th century Chinese sailor also known as “Sanbao”, or Sinbad. Vinge seems to have a fondness for Chinese culture, or at least Chinese names. His books are peopled with quite a few of them – most importantly “Pham Nuwen”, one of the main character is AFUD who is back again in DITS. This time it isn’t so much God-like powers that he’s up against, but another human civilization that has recently grown out of a dark age by developing what seems to be a fairly benign form of mind control, but which of course turns out to be pretty horrific.

This time the alien race resembles spiders rather than dogs. These spiders seem to be about the size and dimension of go-carts, and at the beginning of the book have managed to build up a civilization roughly equal to the advances achieved on Earth in the earliest 20th century. They have skyscrapers, cars, and airplanes. Life on Arachna (the name given to their planet by visiting humans) goes into a kind of hibernation mode for 200 years or so at a time, and the transition in and out of these long winters is traumatic in the extreme. The leading nation on Arachna maintains its advantage through science and a kind of scientific-military-industrial complex which makes the US effort look like a Cub Scout field trip. Most of these scientific advances are pushed by a genius spider named “Sherker Underhill”. Underhill utters the phrase that becomes the title of the book, in the midst of a public debate with a religious whacko who almost wins the debate by calling his children freaks. You have to read it to believe it. And actually, by the end, it was lost on me. Although Vinge has enjoyed a long career as a professor of Mathematics and Computer Programming, many of these ideas struck me as far-fetched in the extreme: spiders riding motorcycles, a planet with small moons made out of diamonds, and a main character that lives for tens of thousands of years. It’s all in good fun though – mostly anyway.

When it takes on a serious tone it only becomes more ridiculous. The book runs the gamut: from techonological prophecy to futuristic anthropology to enforced idiot-savantism as a version of mental slavery. But, hey, it’s science fiction

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