Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hugo Winner Review: 2000 A Deepness in the Sky

Vernor Vinge
Completed 2/15/2014, reviewed 2/15/2014
4 stars

In finishing this book, I achieved two amazing feats.  First, I have read all the Hugo Award winners through 2013, excluding the retro winners.  Second, I learned to like the space opera.  While I knew I’d accomplish the first, I never thought I’d accomplish the second.

“Deepness” is a classic space opera.  The Qeng Ho, the ultimate interplanetary traders, are at Arachna, a planet orbiting a strangely variable star.  The star is about to relight, awakening Arachna’s spider-like sentient race from their 200 year hibernation.   Their mission is to make contact with the spiders and engage them in interplanetary commerce.  Another group, the Emergents, have also shown up with less noble intentions.  A war between the two breaks out, leaving the Emergents the victors but with crippled ships and a lot of captive Qeng Ho.  Together they must wait until the spiders awake and become technologically savvy enough to help them restore their ship.  Several of the Qeng Ho try to devise a plan to overthrow the Emergents and protect the spiders from their genocidal intentions.

Woven through the main plot is story of the spiders, particularly one, Sherkaner Underhill, a brilliant engineer, whose ideas and inventions push his people from the dawn of radio to a place not much different technologically and philosophically from where we are today.  The rapid rise of technology produces great wonders, and of course, great danger.  Underhill with his wife, General Victory Smith, and children must work together to avoid the nuclear precipice that their world seems to be edging toward.  Don’t let the character’s names fool you.  They sound hokey, like you’d find in a bad juvenile novel.  The oddness of their names is part of an interesting twist in the plot.

When I began the book, I was none too thrilled.  As many of my followers know, I’m not a fan of space opera.  The drama between the Emergents and the Qeng Ho seemed to have a cast of thousands, dry technology filled with lots of jargon, and very cardboard characters.  There was the power hungry Podmaster, the young, naïve, lovelorn flight commander, and the smart and perky preteen, among many others.  Reading it was a chore, only alleviated when the story returned to spiders.  They were a wonderful alien species right from the start.  This, I thought, is where Vinge was hiding his good characters. 

Then something happened.  After the Emergents beat and basically enslave the Qeng Ho, the story takes a very different turn.  Vinge takes the time to flesh out the human characters.  He gives them histories, loves, friendships, and motivations.  I found myself intrigued with their efforts to subvert the Emergents.  Next thing I knew, I was riveted by how the plotlines of the Qeng Ho, the Emergents, and the spiders were all coming together in a fast-paced, explosive finale. 

A very interesting concept was how the Emergents enslaved their foes.  It’s called the Focus. It is basically a virus that the Emergents had engineered out of a deadly plague into a mind-control device.  When properly introduced and manipulated to its host, this virus turns a person into a single-minded automaton.  A focused person becomes just that, intensely focused on the task at hand.  When properly organized and directed, these zipheads become organic AI computers networks, finding solutions to problems in days, instead of years.  I found this concept really intriguing.  To me, it was a fictionalization of what’s happening to our education system today.  Schools, from elementary to university, have become robot factories.  Their purpose is no longer to produce educated critical thinkers, but rather focused automatons who can get gainful employment but lack the ability to appreciate anything beyond a video game, an action movie, and a celebrity reality series, let alone make an informed decision about the state of world affairs, or carry on an intelligent conversation about literature.

What concerns me is that Vinge’s solution to the ziphead problem is the Qeng Ho.  Commerce will free the zipheads and save an alien society bent on destroying itself.  But isn’t it commerce gone insane that has created this environment?  The people who society deems are successful today have are one-dimensional.  If I want to talk about an action flick, I go to work.  If want to have an intelligent conversation about theater or class struggle or a good book, I go to a coffee shop.

That’s why I liked this book.  It had great characters, exciting multiple intertwining plots, and it made me think.  I don’t agree with it, but it made a statement and entertained me.  Last year, you wouldn’t catch me dead saying this about a space opera:  I give this book 4 stars.  

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