23 July 2012

Shallow Deepness

A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge

An interesting variation on a science fiction theme I am especially fond of, the first-contact story. In this case, the monstrous alien invaders are the humans, conspiring to foment nuclear war among a race of unsuspecting intelligent arachnoids. To make things more interesting (and give us some anthropomorphs to cheer for), the humans are also divided up into good guys and bad guys.

Of course, the above variation has already been explored in SF. Frederik Pohl's Jem springs to mind; indeed, Pohl seems to be a strong influence on Vinge, and I was reminded of the former many times while reading this book. Pohl is, however, by far the better writer.

Vinge, a professor of mathematics by day, doesn't seem to be able to write convincing characters. Out of a cast of dozens, he manages to make us care about just one: an old soldier named Hrunker Unnerby – who happens to be one of the arachnoids. The real humans are all cardboard.

Of course, cardboard characters are pretty much to be expected in hard SF. The virtues of the genre lie elsewhere, and its aficionados (rightly) don't give a toss for the traditional literary ones. But Vinge has problems that go beyond the usual. For one thing, he aims higher. However, he reveals an amateur's clumsiness in deploying his characters, clearly finding it hard to move them around and make them interact convincingly. Nearly all the scenes involving human interaction are cartoonish and unconvincing. This includes scenes featuring the aliens, who are presented to us by the author as human in all respects but the physical.

This, incidentally, is one of many places in the text where the reader's willing suspension of disbelief falters, for the aliens are utterly different from us in terms of their physical structure, sensory perceptions, instinctive tropisms and reproductive behaviour. Even given the excuse that we see them, for most of the book, through the mediating lens of human perception, they shouldn't be quite so like us. Surely these physical differences must make for mental ones as well? But Vernor Vinge appears to be immune to the fascinations of speculative xenopsychology, and we are left with creatures that look like giant spiders but act just like people.

Other aspects of the plot also beggar belief. The regularly interrupted social evolution of the arachnoids nevertheless proceeds incredibly fast – they go from early experiments with internal-combustion engines to intercontinental ballistic missiles within a single generation. The turning of the human Ezr Vinh, a critical plot element, is based on an impossible chain of extrapolations from an obscure hint dropped by another character. A starship explicitly not designed for operating within a planetary atmosphere, last seen falling at one hundred metres per second, wreathed in flames and starting to break up, somehow manages to land without killing its crew. Civilizations rise and fall within the timeframe of a mere thousand years, yet humans undertake trading voyages between the stars that last for centuries. The whole thing is confused and rather nonsensical.

The author is so uninvolved with his characters that he casually dumps the two most sympathetic ones for good in a scene that takes place offstage. Indeed, many vital scenes are pushed offstage. Among them is the action climax of the novel, the aforementioned starship crash. Perhaps it's just as well; the only big action scene in the book, which takes place inside the chief bad guy's artificial water-garden, is a clumsy, sodden mess. The chief villain's comeuppance is also unsatisfyingly quick and merciful, while that of his sadistic lieutenant takes place – again, and frustratingly – offstage. This is a scene we are dying to see through his eyes, but he's long gone by the time we hear what's happened to him. Equally incompetent are the handling of an early, mandatory scene in which the bad guys are revealed to be sadistic perverts, and various other scenes of violence, cruelty or complex action – frankly, the author is too squeamish to write them properly, and he shouldn't even have tried.

So, with all these complaints, why am I giving this book three stars? Well, it kept me reading. Some of the technical ideas were interesting, though nothing was actually new or even very freshly rendered. And first-contact stories are my favourite kind of hard SF story.

Yes, there were times when I grew bored with the endless backstory expositions, the cartoon characters, the long, long gaps between important scenes – Vinge captures the tedium of deep-space exile only too well – but for all that, I kept reading. Of course, I'm a genre slut – I always have round heels for SF – so for me it was a three-star book despite its decidedly two-star qualities.

I shall now go and re-read one of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels to remind myself that hard SF doesn't always have to be lousy literature.

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