Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky (Zones of Thought)Vernor Vinge
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ - - - -

This book is a mile wide and an inch deep. And way, way too long.

It seems like Vinge has fun introducing new people, places, accents, terms, and technologies, and then is happy to abandon them, superficially outlined, when he gets bored or thinks of new ones.

To attempt to summarize the plot: two space-faring human fleets, the Qeng Ho (over-the-top free-market traders) and the Emergents (cult-like slaver-megalomaniacs) fly simultaneously to the mysterious OnOff star system which has one planet, Arachna. Arachna is populated with beings called Spiders who are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons and spaceflight. Upon arriving at Arachna, the Qeng Ho and the Emergents battle; the Emergents win and enslave many of the Qeng Ho traders with a kind of mind control. Then all parties sit and wait for the Spiders to advance enough for their purposes – for the Emergents, to use Spider technology to repair their ships and then enslave them, and for the Qeng Ho, to use Spider technology to free themselves and then to profit off them.

The story had about eight million characters and place names, none of which I cared about and many of which I confused with each other. Many of the characters had flashbacks which did little to explain their motivation and which in turn introduced still more characters and place names.

Just as one of the many story lines in the book would appear to be getting interesting, it would disappear into vagueness and switch to a different story. You never hear the guts of anyone’s ideas. For example, when Pham Nuwen (one of the many main characters) is talking about what he wants for his Qeng Ho fleet in the future, Vinge only gives us Pham’s introduction and conclusion and glosses over the content in the middle of his speech, saying only that his “words flowed.” This type of thing happens over and over.

As in his earlier book, A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge does the best job with the aliens, the Spiders. The Spider characters were more understandable, likeable, and consistent than most of the humans.

There were several typos (e.g. “precentage”) and incorrectly-used words (e.g. “runway” instead of “runaway”) in the edition I read, especially towards the end, which made me think that perhaps the editor was having a tough time that deep into the book as well.

It appears, however, that I am the only one who officially feels this way about this book. All the reviewers and two of Vinge’s cronies – David Brin and Gregory Benford, both of whom I like a lot – raved about the book like it was the next Foundation series. Asimov’s Foundation universe is just as grand in scope, if not more so. But I cared about Asimov’s characters and he described worlds and ships well enough that their names meant something to me. Anytime he introduced new technology, I felt like I understood it enough to see its import.

I think if Vinge had focused on any one (or three) (or five) of the places, characters, incidents, and/or technologies in this book and explored them more deeply, it would have made for a pretty good book.

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