Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge, 1999)

While not exactly a new work, A Deepness in the Sky remains one of the most important novels I have read. Even after 15 years or so, it has continued to influence my thinking on the human condition and the historical processes that constrain it. Rereading the book this year, a review seemed apropos.

Written by Vernor Vinge, the novel is science fiction, set many thousands of years in the future, when human civilizations have spread into interstellar space. It serves as something of a prequel to his earlier work, A Fire Upon the Deep, making it for the most part both less operatic and more realistic. People still face the physical and temporal limits of slower-than-light travel—and their historical consequences. The economic expense of interstellar flight is even more staggering. The details of interstellar trade aren’t explicated quite so well, but I will return to that problem in my criticisms.

The plot itself is a swashbuckling tale of conflict between different human factions set amid first contact with an alien species inhabiting an anomalous star system. Vinge splits the narratives between the humans and the aliens. He anthropomorphizes the aliens through a clever storytelling device that allows the reader to identify with them while still recognizing their unusual biology and culture.

The characters form an ensemble cast. However, the almost mythical figure of Pham Nuwen towers above the rest. A man from humble beginnings who sought to unify human civilizations and to prevent their inevitable cycles of collapse, he finds himself tempted with a second chance to achieve this goal. His internal battle represents the novel’s primary moral conflict, the struggle between the desire for libertarian individualism and the impulse toward a totalitarian pursuit of the common good.

Perhaps the novel simply came along at the right time in the evolution of my own political philosophy, but it was this moral dilemma that I found so affecting. Pham Nuwen’s personal evolution is not dissimilar to my own, though his tragedy is played out on interstellar scales. To accept and embrace freedom is to also accept the consequences that may come along with it. The alternative, however good the intentions may be, is to reject fundamental morality and to control others through violence and coercion—to provide for the common good by somehow abusing power more justly, as I have lately taken to describing the conundrum. Civilizations may fall, but history has already proved that force cannot long maintain them.

As much as I love this novel and would recommend it to the canon of philosophically meaningful fiction, it isn’t without flaw. First, there is the unambiguous nature of the characters. As I described earlier, the story’s moral conflict is personified by Pham Nuwen. Almost everyone else of importance is clearly good or evil. It isn’t enough that the villainous human faction is composed of treacherous would-be conquerors. Its leaders have to indulge in torture and rape as well.

Next, though Vinge goes to great lengths to describe the interstellar trading culture, he ultimately fails to explain how it would actually be profitable. With most of the sum knowledge of human experience and technology being freely broadcast throughout inhabited space, the marginal value of the additional technical information carried aboard a starship would be negated by the enormous expense of interstellar travel itself. That said, I think he is still closer to the mark than most. Thus far, we’ve seen only the first inklings of economic or political theory being applied to explain why our galaxy isn’t already teeming with interstellar civilizations, so the paucity of fictional representations is understandable.

The final problem is a plot hole that follows from the preceding fault. After the human factions nearly destroy each other in battle, they choose to lurk, conceal their presence, and wait for the alien civilization to mature. This would seem like a prudent, non-destabilizing strategy. However, why can’t the aliens already detect the ongoing broadcasts from human space designed to promote common language, culture, and technology?

The lessons of A Deepness in the Sky seem more relevant to me than ever. I still can’t say whether our civilization is at the beginning of its end or the end of its beginning, but it has become increasingly clear that some great transformation is imminent. Vernor Vinge himself would probably argue for the advent of a technological singularity, though this novel was written to describe human fate in a world where such has expressly not occurred. While I think the concept of the singularity is useful when examining changing historical paradigms, I also think that Vinge and the likes of Ray Kurzweil are wrong. Humans and our technologies may be capable of amazing things … but nothing that fantastic. If we make it that far in the present historical epoch, we may try, but we will fail. However, in the current moral paradigm, human civilization itself will fail. No hero can prevent it. No government can prevent it. Indeed, they will be its authors.

So … do read this novel … while you still have the luxury to do so.

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