Every two hundred fifty years, the OnOff star relights. During its period of warmth, the Spiders who live on the planet below emerge from their Deepnesses and rebuild their world for the few decades before the OnOff star falls back into the darkness of its dormancy. This Lighting, however, is different. Two star-faring human races—the trade-loving Qeng Ho and the crafty Emergents—await the event, each hoping to be the first to contact the Spiders at the appropriate time. But before long, treachery threatens their very existence, and a web of deceit and plots tangle toward a final confrontation in which the Spiders themselves play a major role in the fate of all.
Why I Almost Didn't Finish Reading
I picked this book off a friend’s shelf during an idle evening, and, at her recommendation, took it home with me. At first, I was not convinced that I wanted to finish A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY because I didn’t understand anything that was going on.
First, Mr. Vinge creates a culture that is as disorienting as it is interesting. For example, time is not measured by minutes and hours, but by seconds—Ksecs and Msecs. The table in the beginning of the book was helpful in converting my time standard to Vinge’s time standard, but I was still a little lost.
Also, the strange names take some getting used to themselves, especially since the author references a character sometimes by his surname, sometimes by his given name, and sometimes by an alternate name or nickname. For example, one important woman is interchangeably called Qiwi, Lisolett, and “the Brat.”
Furthermore, it took me a long time to understand (or at least accept) the complex details of multiple cultures, in a setting in which the science and technology often went far over my head.
I nearly gave up on this book, and I’m so glad that I didn’t. Because one day I was plowing doggedly through the story and, with a sudden shift, everything just clicked. I saw the big picture and it was absolutely mind-blowing.
What Hooked Me In The End
One of the characters is not who he says he is. By the time you discover this, you start flipping back through the book and reinterpreting everything he has said and done thus far. It all makes so much sense—and you realize that this adventure is about much more than establishing trade rights with a new alien race.
Another of the characters knows information that could destroy the tenuous peace amongst the humans—but she doesn’t know that she knows it. It takes a lot to creep me out, but one particular scene with this character, in which she realizes what she knows, freaked me out. I still get shivers thinking about it.
The first time you read about the aliens, you don’t even realize it. Then, when your mind finally assimilates that the character cannot possibly be human, you can’t help it: you continue to see them through a sympathy that humanizes their alien form. However, when the humans and Spiders first see each other’s appearance, you are jerked back to a human perspective of the Spiders. It’s a wild ride.
The world-building in A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY is of a level that I honestly have rarely seen in any speculative fiction. This world felt real. Not just so entertaining that I wished that it was real, or so scientifically detailed that it seemed theoretically possible. No, this world was solid like physical reality, and the characters and cultures were not simply the usual homogenous bunch, for both aliens and humans had sub-cultures and conflicts amongst each other, and those cultures adapted and evolved over the course of the story in a very realistic way. As a world-builder myself, I was incredibly impressed with Mr. Vinge’s skill.
This story includes swearing, sexual references, a scene in which two unmarried people begin sexually interacting (sex is implied, though not shown), and graphic violence, plus references to rape, manipulation of a hideous kind (the practice of Focusing individuals), memory erasure, and other things that some readers may find disturbing. Remember, this book involves war on multiple levels, and therefore the flavor of war comes through pretty strongly.
If you like plots and counter-plots, hidden identities and carefully-kept secrets, detailed cultures and rich histories, technology that is both incredible and plausible, and characters who feel real, then I highly recommend A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY. It’s been a long time since a book gave me a whopping book hangover, and this one definitely did!
P.S. This book is Book 2 in the series Zones of Thought. I haven't read the other books in the series, but I consider this to stand very well on its own.