August 22, 2004

Deepness in the Sky/ Vernor Vinge

Rarely do I find a Sci-Fi story whose central character has a Chinese/ Vietnamese-sounding name like Pham Nuwen. I’m re-reading the novel for the second time and it’s still as exciting as ever.
cover The Qeng Ho (sounds like the explorer-eunuch Admiral Zhenghe of 15th Century China) is a human space-faring trading culture. They clash with another space-faring human society called the “Emergents” (the baddies in this case) while trying to explore the developing alien Spider society. The Emergents pulled a fast one on the Qeng Hos, became top dog and subjugated the Qeng Hos.

The Emergents has a tyrannical ruling class that exploits its own people by turning some of them into specialised, but not mindless, network-slaves. Some of their own people and the vanquished Qeng Ho are subject to something called “Focus”. It’s like deliberating making a person compulsively-obsessed over an area of study or task (e.g. Linguistics, or Office Security). Each human becoming dedicated human computing processors. Of course the Qeng Hos kicked-ass in the end. The interesting and exciting part was how they did it.

Meanwhile, the Spider society is also engaged in a war. The Spiders are portrayed as very human in thinking and emotions. The interesting thing is that every 50 years or so, their Sun would turn cold, and all Spiders have to hibernate. They wake maybe 10 years later, develop for another 50, and then the cycle repeats itself. The Emergents basically want to dominate Spider society as well.

So there’s something happening in space, and on Spider-world. The finale draws it all together. The novel can certainly give any Hong Kong drama serial a run for the money. There is adventure, political intrigue, conspiracy, love-lost and found, the virtue of patience, the development of capitalism, victims to heroes, tyranny, triumph of good over evil, justice and retribution. It’s a feel-good story.

I found it fascinating how a technologically advanced species could manipulate the development of another alien culture. For instance, along the way, the evil Emergents sped up the development of the Spider society by setting up a software company that subsequently made itself pervasive in the Spider society’s computer networks (sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Is Bill Gates an alien?). The Emergents even started a nuclear war by making one of the Spider-nation think that the other side initiated an attack (they were fooled because their computers told them so). It was food for thought on our reliance on computers and the Internet. Information can be manipulated. Our identities are real only if there’s some record in the computer database.

That’s why I read Sci-Fi again and again. It’s not about the science. It’s about the ideas and dreams, about social interactions and change and possibilities. I often find that well written Sci-Fi stories add to my understanding of human behaviour and the development of society. Deepness in the Sky--like many good Sci-Fi stories--is fiction, but it’s not science per se. It has to tell a good story, first. The science just adds to the flavour.


Preetam said...

Have you read the "Fast Times at Fairmont High" by Verner Vinge. I think it would be an interesting book for singapore students and educators. The book talks about a school in year 2020 where wireless computing, virtual reality etc. are commonplace.

Ivan Chew said...

I've read the story, from "The collected stories of Vernor Vinge". I'd say it's classic Vinge, with really radical Sci Fi concepts like "Consensual VR". Hard Sci Fi fans would love it.