A Deepness in the Sky

From Academic Kids

A Deepness in the Sky (1999) is a science fiction novel by Vernor Vinge. It is a loose prequel to his novel A Fire Upon the Deep, which is set 20,000 years later. It was nominated for the 1999 Nebula Award for Best Novel, won (http://dpsinfo.com/awardweb/hugos/00s.html#2000) the 2000 Hugo Award for Best Novel, making it one of the most honored science fiction novels (http://book.awardannals.com/genre/scifi/topbooks) in recent history. The first Tor mass market paperback edition is 775 pages.

The book deals with the discovery of an intelligent alien species on a planet orbiting the bizarre, appropriately named On/Off star, which spends over 200 of every 250 years completely dormant, releasing almost no energy. During this period, the planet freezes and its inhabitants go into hibernation.

The planet's inhabitants, named Spiders by humans, are going through a period technologically very similar to Earth's 20th century. Two expeditions set out to trade and exploit, the Qeng Ho traders (presumably named after Cheng Ho) and the Emergents, an autocratic culture that literally enslaves the mind. After being decimated by a disease they call "mindrot", they have learned to engineer the disease and use it to their advantage. They use it as a weapon against the unwitting Qeng Ho, infecting them during a meeting with a time-delayed variant of the disease. As they approach the star, a surprise attack by the Emergents, timed to coincide with the mindrot symptoms, leaves both fleets crippled. They are forced to cooperate, and wait for the Spider civilization to achieve a greater technological maturity to help them refurbish their ships.

The primary use of mindrot in Emergent culture is a variant that can be manipulated to release neurotoxins to specific parts of the brain. The changes are triggered through dia- and paramagnetic biological molecules by an active MRI-type device. By manipulating the brain in this way, they induce a state they call Focus, in which the Focused person is completely obsessed with a single idea, essentially turning them into brilliant appliances. Many Qeng Ho are Focused against their will, and the rest of the population is held under mass surveillance by the Emergents. Their totalitarian rule is diluted by the trader's culture, however, as they discover the benefits of free trade and the cultures merge over many years of working together.

The book discusses some of the problems of trying to maintain an interstellar trading culture without access to superluminal travel. One of the interesting concepts in the book is that the Qeng Ho measure time only in terms of seconds since the notion of days, months, and years has no usefulness between various star systems. The timekeeping system is based on the Unix epoch and the story frequently uses terms such as kiloseconds and megaseconds.

The only real connection with A Fire Upon the Deep is the character of Pham Nuwen, the "Programmer-at-Arms", who appears in both books. There are also hints about the "zones of thought" mentioned in the first book, though the connections are not thoroughly explained and the characters in the story are unaware of the zones' existence. The sun's inexplicably strange behavior, the unusual solar system (with only a solitary planet and several asteroid-sized diamonds), and the discovery of "cavorite mines" on the planet are thought to be leftovers from the passage of the star system through the center of the galaxy. There are rumors that an ancient starfaring civilization were the ancestors of the Spiders, and the antigravity material and other strange artifacts are part of their ruins.

At the end of the book, Pham announces his plans to free all of the Focused in the entire Emergent civilization, and, surviving that, to embark on a journey to the center of the galaxy to find the source of these strange artifacts.

This is the first Vinge work which introduces localizers. These are tiny devices which can contain a simple processor, sensors, and short-range communications. Vinge explores how mesh networking of these devices can be put to use in ways quite different from traditional computer networks.


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