So: the second book I borrowed was "A Deepness in the Sky," also by Vinge. After a detour through some non-science-fiction fare, I plunged into it.
The book ended up being quite different from Marooned in Realtime. I should have expected this: after all, his short stories were quite distinct from one another, so why should his novels be the same? Not only were the technology and the stories unique, but the overall feel is quite different as well. Marooned in Realtime is relatively narrowly focused, with a single protagonist and a central mystery to solve. A Deepness in the Sky is a grand epic, with a huge cast of characters. Although most of the action takes place in and around a single planet, it's set against a rich tapestry of starfaring, and you get a strong feel for the entire universe while reading it. It's also a darker book, with outright villainy dominating most of its timeline; the efforts of the good guys always seem doomed to failure. (In contrast, MiR is dominated by mainly good people, with a hidden and secretive bad guy lurking somewhere.)
ADitS is set in a different timeline, and it's one of the rare Vinge stories that doesn't deal with the Singularity at all. Or, you could say that it deals with it by omission, with a focus on social sciences. In this universe, mankind is thwarted from ever achieving the Singularity due to the unstable nature of civilization. Humanity has gained interstellar travel and spread to a wide range of planets, each of which have their own independent governments, but a cycle of rise and decline is endlessly repeated. Populations grow and technology expands, a grand civilization is established, but then some disaster inevitably strikes - perhaps overpopulation triggers a plague, or a tyrannical government takes over and drives the planet back to the Dark Ages, or religious wars divide the populace and leads them to annihilate one another. It's a fairly pessimistic view, though not universally dour: fallen civilizations can recover as long as enough people are left alive and the planet remains habitable. It may take ten thousand years or more, but eventually high civilization will return.
In this scenario, any planet is ultimately doomed. You can avoid that fate, however, by not being tied to a particular planet. This is how the whole enterprise got started, when the first men escaped the trap of Old Earth and established the first colonies before it failed. We learn that Old Earth itself has gone through three cycles of fall and rebirth; this book is set a LONG way in our future. Anyways, one particular loose grouping of people has abandoned the dream of establishing a permanent civilization, and become a tribe of constantly traveling and constantly trading merchants, the Qeng Ho. They have some of the accouterments of a nation, such as a language and dynasties, but have no desire to gain territory or subjugate other people. Instead, they travel between systems in search of advanced civilizations, and when they find them they trade. Over time, they are collecting all of the best technology and designs in the universe, and in the process helping to spread civilization itself.
Again, all that is backdrop. The actual story itself is more claustrophobic.
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Not to mention arachnophobic. The Qeng Ho find a rare prize, an intelligent non-human race. A fleet of ships mount an expedition, hoping to find a lucrative trading opportunity. They arrive at the same time as a rising power, the Emergents, whose murky goals alarm the Qeng Ho. The two work together in an uneasy truce for a while, before the Emergents betray them, killing many of the traders and enslaving the rest.
It takes a while to discover just what form their slavery takes. I had guessed fairly early on that what they called "Focus" was roughly equivalent to a ghost dub in the "Ghost in the Shell" world, where a human psyche is implanted in an automaton. This isn't quite right: Focus is more like a direct enslavement of the mind. Your brain stays in your body, but your master's volition is substituted for your own. You retain your previous memories and capabilities, but lose all emotional attachments except those related to your mission. Each person is Focused on a particular task, which might be piloting a ship, managing weapons systems, solving mathematical problems, translating alien speech, serving hors d'oeuvre, pretty much anything. The Qeng Ho have focused on automation, programming software to take care of routine tasks; the Emergents have some automation, but their edge is that they can run human intelligence like a software program, giving vague instructions in natural language and having their wishes carried out.
Focus is a really creepy thing. You get to see a lot of the Focused people and get to know them well over the long length of the novel. You also see Focus change people who are infected; they retain some of their personality, which makes their alienation even more painful to watch.
One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the way it keeps the Emergents' evil front and center throughout the novel. I'm used to books where the heroes are the focus; while the heroes and the villains inevitably clash, and may do so frequently, the heroes are still largely in control of their actions, able to make plans and carry them out. However, this is a book set in a police state, one that makes Stalin's USSR or Kim Jong Il's North Korea look like the Wild West in comparison. On top of the oppressive pyramid sits Thomas Nau, a fully realized bad guy who manages to be charming while also being manipulative and thoroughly cold-blooded. The Emergent power structure demands absolute obedience, and has the tools to enforce it. Nau controls an army of slaves who will unquestioningly carry out his bidding. He also has video and audio surveillance that lets him (and his lieutenants) watch everyone, everywhere, all the time. Later in the novel, he gains access to a new level of surveillance that allows him to even read body temperatures and minute facial expressions, letting him recognize when people are lying or unusually agitated. All of this data, in turn, is fed to the ranks of Focused analysts, who sift through the constant stream of input, discerning any sign that someone might be questioning his authority or preparing to move against him.
How do you organize a resistance to that? You can't. An early attempt at rebellion is squashed. From then on, everyone is Winston Smith. People can silently rage within their own minds, but not take any action against the government, cannot speak, cannot find anyone else who does. In fact, it's worse than Big Brother, because this one can actually read your mind, and doesn't need to find any journals or secret recordings.
All of this, however, is just the Human tip of the iceberg. A parallel story is taking place down on the surface among the Spiders. They're undergoing a rapid burst of technological development, essentially equivalent to going from the 1920's to the 1990's in the span of about 30 years. The book opens on a rough equivalent of our World Wars, with trench warfare and government research for more advanced weaponry. It closes with a Cold War showdown complete with a functioning Star Wars missile defense system. In between, a single Spider, Sherkaner Underhill, combines Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, only more prolific; he's a brilliant engineer who single-handedly (er, single-leggedly) changes the world, then founds a university full of students each doing the same.
The length of the novel is put to good use. We get to really know Underhill, and his wife, and their friends, and their children. We see Underhill as a young lad bubbling over with enthusiasm and ideas, and watch him as he grows older and gradually more frail; he never loses that spark which makes him so endearing. We also get a feel for the geo-political shifts on Arachna, as old allies gradually become new enemies. And, of course, we know more than the Spiders, so even as we get to learn and like them more, our unease grows: we know that there is an avaricious race hidden just out of their sight, waiting to pounce and enslave them once they reach a sufficiently advanced technology.
I think that ADitS is one of the rare sci-fi books that can make a compelling case for being literature as well. We start getting chapters told from the Spiders' POV fairly early on. Much later, we realize that what we've been reading is taken from the Focused translators' own observation of the Spiders. This, in turn, leads to some other interesting insights. The Spiders are a fully alien race, so of course they have their own names, own language, own idioms. The translators have been working to make it comprehensible to humans, and are divided between a literalist faction, who want to present the words in as close to their original form as possible, and an impressionist faction, who are willing to bend the actual words in order to better convey the underlying meaning. In a sense, the Focused are creating the spiders as much as they are describing them. The Focused are authors. This kind of textual play is subtle, but a lot of fun, and helps make the book much more than "just" a rousing sci-fi story.
Towards the very end of the book, there's an extended discussion about the effects of Focus, and whether it is ever acceptable. During this section, I came to feel like Vinge was projecting some of himself into the debate. Focus is a horrifying thing, but at the same time, it allows one to accomplish so much. All you need to do is sublimate yourself into your work: the ego drops away, and all your effort pours into the task at hand, free from distractions or competing priorities. What he's describing is a state like what I feel when I'm programming or writing. There's something terrifying about the level of Focus in this book, but also something alluring, and I think Vinge feels the same kind of temptation that I do.
I think A Deepness in the Sky may be the best Vinge novel that I've read yet. It has all the intelligence and creativity of his other books, but adds a truly epic scope and tragic core that elevates it above the rest. It's not for everyone, but is a phenomenal novel that will reward on all fronts.