A Deepness in the Sky
Reviewed date: 2013 Apr 29
A Deepness in the Sky tells two parallel, related stories. The first is a fascinating tale of a civilization that exists on a lone planet circling the On/Off Star. The star essentially winks on and off in a two-hundred-year cycle. When the star is off, the planet cools so dramatically that even the atmosphere freezes. All life exists in a frozen stasis in underground "deepnesses", where they lie dormant until the New Sun warms the world and life begins anew.
These spider-like aliens are on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons. We meet them at the end of a cycle, with a technology at about a 1940 level. By the middle of the next cycle, they've developed fantastic computer systems, nukes, and ICBMs. Furthermore, they've developed nuclear-heated underground cities, where they hope to live through the Deep Night without hibernating.
Despite being alien, the Spiders seem almost perfectly human. They have names like Smith and Underhill, and go to university in towns named Princeton. This is because their story is being told in familiar human terms by a team of super-dedicated human translators, which brings us to the other story. The Spiders are being secretly watched and manipulated by humans hiding in orbit. Two expeditionary forces arrived at the On/Off Star just prior to the star's relighting: the Qeng Ho and the Emergents. They fought a short, savage war, and the Emergents won a pyrrhic victory: their spaceships are wrecked and they can't get home until the Spider civilization is advanced enough to help rebuild their starships. So, the humans set about surreptitiously speeding up the Spider technology revolution.
But the human story is boring, because it mostly revolves around one member of the Qeng Ho--the losing faction--plotting and conniving to overthrow the Emergents. The Emergents are patently evil, to be sure: they use a mind drug called Focus to turn people into zombie slaves, they've outlawed capitalism, and their leader's favorite pasttimes are rape, murder, and genocide. But the good guys aren't terribly likeable either, and they are certainly less interesting than the Spiders.
A Deepness in the Sky contains an good story, but the book drags on for 775 pages. A heavy-handed editor could have forced Vinge to cut this to 400 pages, which would have turned a decent book into a great one. Then again, this won the Hugo and Campbell awards, so a lot of people thought it was pretty good already.