Wednesday, 8 April 2015

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

I had, it must be admitted, a hard time getting into this one. I'd pick it up and read a bit, but not make much real headway. Partly it's because other books that people had on hold at the library came in, or I needed to blast something through to be ready for my book club. These external factors, however, weren't all of it. Once I finally did get into the book, I really enjoyed it.

I think some of it was because one of the core concepts of the book is just so ugly that it was hard to raise any enthusiasm about it. It was handled well, and was justifiably chilling, but the very idea turned my stomach and it took a while to come to grips with that. (This would be the state of slavery known as Focus. I'm not going to say anything more than that.)

It was the Spiders that kept bringing me back, even while the humans were driving me away. Vinge does a good job of creating an interesting alien species, and even giving good reasons why our perceptions of them are coloured by anthropomorphism.

In orbit around a star that regularly turns on for 50 years and off for about 200, a fleet of Traders who help hold together knowledge in all of Human space get there at the same time as the Emergent, an isolated human settlement with terrifying new technology. Initially working together to study the inhabitants of the orbiting planet as they are about to come out of another 200-year hibernation, the Emergent try a double-cross, which ends up with them in control but badly crippled, stuck hiding in the asteroid belt until the Spiders invent space flight. Which they are closer to doing than you might expect.

One member of the crew is actually over 2000 objective years old, much of it spent in suspended animation between stars. He was present at the founding of the Trader dynasties, and knows secrets in the ships that no one else does. So he spends decades planning a revolution, while posing as a blowhard.

Meanwhile, on the planet, the one brilliant scientist who has both made major discoveries and founded a university that brings together the best and brightest Spiders, is upsetting the status quo. He was the first to figure out that with nuclear power, perhaps only being awake 50 out of every 250+ years doesn't need to be the norm. As such, the practice of having children right before the Dark and only right before the Dark will be obsolete, and he and his wife produce six precocious offspring as proof.

This causes ripples all over the planet, particularly in a rival nation ruled by a religious leader who believes these children have no souls. It's an interesting way of looking at how biology shapes belief, and how practices can get engrained in different ways. As the next Darkness looms, which side will defeat the other? And how will the humans intervene?

This is a very good book, and once I was engrossed, I plowed through the last 200 pages in a day. It took a while to build up that head of steam, though. There are bits that are distinctly uncomfortable to read. And I wasn't thrilled at the end by the neat heterosexual pairing off of just about everyone, based on what seemed like specious reasoning. I've never been a fan of "she's been in love with you all this time, so...what's the problem?" as a reason for a new relationship, when I'm not convinced these characters have a real connection.

It's a small quibble. Certainly not one that should dissuade anyone from the book as a whole.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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