It’s a good thing that I’d built and increased the lead time in my reading for this blog, because the whole project came grinding to an awkward halt for about a month when this book came up on the list. For the past few years, I’ve been in a groove where I read a novel or two every week, and that includes some eight-hundred pagers…but this one stopped me cold for some reason.
Some reason? I actually know the exact reason. This novel may look like a svelt 800 page novelette, but there’s about 10,000 pages of story in those 800 pages, and a lot of it, frankly, ain’t that interesting. In fact, between A Fire Upon the Deep and this novel, I can see a clear pattern in how I react to Vinge’s books: Phase 1) initial interest in the Big Ideas presented, along with a little confusion as I get my bearings. Phase 2) a long slog through the middle as everything bogs down in jargon and the characters plot and plot and plot, stop to plot a little, then plot some more. Phase 3) a jumbo exciting climax and generally satisfying dénouement. So, I come out liking about 2/3rds of Vinge’s novels, and in A Fire Upon the Deep it worked out fine. In Deepness, however, that middle third took up a solid 9000 of the aforementioned 10,000 pages. It was a slog.
Deepness takes place 20,000 years before A Fire Upon the Deep in the same “Zones of Thought”-verse, though the Zones don’t actually come up much. Humanity hasn’t met many aliens, and they just chug around in slower-than-light sleeper ships. There’s a large group of freedom-loving space capitalist traders named the Qeng Ho who swashbuckle around space (they’re mentioned often in Fire). They’ve found a crazy star that periodically shuts down, which they call OnOff. That’s mysterious enough, but when they learn that it’s inhabited, they have to check it out. Another group of humans, called Emergents, also hear alien transmissions, and the race is on. The Qeng Ho and Emergents work together for about five pages, but the Emergents ambush the Qeng Ho with a virus called "focus" that turns people into obedient computing machines. Meanwhile, we also begin to learn about the spider-like aliens on OnOff’s planet, who are undergoing their own version of Earth’s twentieth century (these are actually the best scenes in the drudgery of “phase 2”). I’d mention some characters, but they’re all super-brilliant heroic/evil generic plotters, and there’s a minor spoiler about the main character.
I’m actually fairly excited about the summary I just wrote, and I wish I could remember this novel more fondly. There are plenty of interesting Ideas, half of which I haven’t even mentioned, and some intriguing twists at the end. But, that middle portion of the book just killed my brain. From the time the Emergents attack to the final confrontation is so repetitive, hopeless, and dull that I often put the book down for days at a time. I had zero connection with the characters, and there are several large time skips in the novel that really put me off. The whole thing takes place over several decades (I mean MegaSeconds…don’t even get me started on the metric time scale), and we’ll check in on a character after five years and find that NOTHING HAS CHANGED because they’re all SO DAMN BORING. This, of course, only increases the distance I felt from them.
It’s a rich book with wonderful ideas and some memorable moments. I tend to like this sort of ambitious, epic space opera, but I can’t really recommend this one, and I have to admit that I struggled to relate to it. I hope Vinge’s third Hugo-winner is shorter.