Tag Archives: space opera

Deepness proves Vinge a master of quality space opera

The Qeng Ho fleet was the first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it.

Title: A Deepness in the Sky
Author: Vernor Vinge
Year: 1999
Rating: 5/5 stars

deepnessThis novel is set in the same universe (the “Zones of Thought”) as Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and although it’s not necessary to have read that previous novel in order to appreciate this one, that is still the easiest angle of approach, so that’s where I’ll start (and hey, you should read them both anyway, since they’re both fantastic). In Fire we meet the character of Pham Nuwen, who is actually a sophisticated recreation of the original Pham Nuwen, constructed by one of the super-advanced Powers from the Beyond. This artificial being has the personality and memories of the actual living Nuwen, and throughout the book we get tantalizing glimpses into his long-ago life as part of the Qeng Ho trading culture in the Slow Zone. A Deepness in the Sky takes us back to that time, some twenty thousand years earlier, and lets us share some of the exploits of the real Pham Nuwen. And once again, Vinge scores a hit, delivering a modern space opera classic.

As the story opens, Nuwen is in hiding after being betrayed and toppled from his position of power many years ago, just when he was on the brink of achieving his greatest dream — the dream of a network capable of holding humanity together throughout the galaxy without the periodic dark ages it has been accustomed to. Now, after a long and massive search, one of his former captains has tracked him down, and convinces him to join an expedition that offers unique and unprecedented opportunities for profit. Astronomers had long known of the OnOff star, a mysterious stellar object that goes dark for 215 out of every 250 years, but no one had ever investigated up close. But it has suddenly become urgent, since radio signals have been picked up from a planet orbiting OnOff — signals suggesting the world is home to the first alien species ever discovered by humanity.

But the Qeng Ho are not the only ones to recognize the opportunities of the situation. Another of humanity’s countless long-separated branches happens to dwell near enough to send an expedition. The Emergents, as they call themselves, see OnOff and the alien civilization there differently than the Qeng Ho — as a resource to be ruthlessly exploited, rather than as a potential trading partner. The rigidly authoritarian and dictatorial Emergent culture is the antithesis of the libertarian, free-market-loving Qeng Ho, and as the two race toward their common destination, a clash of civilizations is inevitable. But the Emergents have a secret weapon to use in that clash: a certain virus found on their homeworld, tamed over centuries, that has profound effects on the human brain. In a weaponized form called “mindrot” it is a crippling disease that shuts down higher mental functions. In a different form called “Focus,” it’s a tool for turning a human being into a living computer. The Focused are like idiot savants, concentrating their entire mental life on their one specialty (navigation, translation, physics, or whatever) with nothing left over for anything else, even simple human interaction. These genius zombies are loyal to their creators (without enough individual will to resist), and are the backbone of Emergent power. And even as the Qeng Ho face the most ruthless adversaries they’ve ever met, Nuwen faces a temptation: is Focus the answer to his long-held dream of a unified human galaxy?

But there’s more going on here. Just as its companion novel does, A Deepness in the Sky tells half of its story from the perspective of an alien species. The Spiders (so called by the Qeng Ho for their general arachnid appearance) have a unique culture shaped by the unusual circumstances of their environment. On a planet that only gets significant sunlight for 35 out of every 250 years, survival through the Long Dark is paramount. While the world goes cold and the atmosphere itself freezes and snows to the ground, the Spiders hibernate in their deepnesses (caverns dug in the ground) awaiting the next cycle of light and warmth, when their society will flourish again. Or, I should say, societies; for the Spiders are split into different nations and factions with a range of social and political beliefs, and a willingness to wage war for them. Just as the humans in space above battle over their various ideals, so it goes for the Spiders below. Those two arenas of conflict, and their interactions and resolutions, are what this novel is all about.

The book is full of familiar human issues (freedom vs. authoritarianism, liberalism vs. conservatism, Big Brother-style surveillance, the costs and benefits of progress) played out in another part of the galaxy, and played out very well. From the machinations of the Emergents, to the history of Nuwen and the Qeng Ho, to the mystery of the OnOff star itself, every part of this book makes for an intensely satisfying read. Vinge is one of the best at this sort of novel, and I really hope he writes more in this universe, since the ending left me eager for more.

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Dancing the Space Opera Two-step

januarydancerMy second taste of Michael Flynn’s work is his 2008 interstellar thriller The January Dancer, a fairly decent adventure tale that doesn’t fail to entertain, but does fail to rise above a typical novel of its type. Tor’s marketing campaign called the book “a triumph of the New Space Opera,” which — typical of marketing campaigns — is something of an exaggeration. Don’t misunderstand me, I liked the book well enough for what it is, and it does have a few things going for it. It’s just that in the overall scheme of things I think it falls much closer to being “average” than to being “a triumph.”

The basic elements will be familiar to anyone who has read any kind of space opera before. Interstellar intrigue. Space battles. The heroes traveling from planet to planet. A future humanity spread out on many worlds. Ancient and powerful alien technology. You know the kinds of things I’m talking about. Flynn does it well, but not really well enough to counteract that “been there, done that” feeling the reader will inevitably have.

A few more specifics might be in order. When the tramp freighter New Angeles finds itself orbiting a remote planet while making emergency repairs, its crew finds a a stash of artifacts made by the Pre-humans — an alien species gone from the galactic scene by the time humanity arrives. The freighter’s captain, Amos January, carries away the only removable artifact, a small block of stone that constantly changes shape: the Twisting Stone, otherwise known as the Dancer. This artifact changes hands multiple times throughout the story, and becomes highly sought after as the characters discover its incredible effects, which could alter the balance of power in the galaxy. As we follow the fate of the Dancer, much space-operatic adventure ensues — hardly a surprise, right?

Flynn can write very well, but for some reason that skill shows itself in this novel more on the small scale than in the grand scheme of the overall story. A piercing insight into life or human nature here, a keenly clever bit of dialogue there, lots of incisive little details, that sort of thing. The story is engaging on a page-by-page basis and keeps the reader interested at a local level. But once the book is finished and you consider it as a whole, it feels a bit unsatisfying, like a meal that doesn’t quite fill you up.

The world-building is somewhat uneven; in some cases the settings and background history are tantalizingly believable, but in other cases are unconvincing. Flynn has his interstellar travel accomplished via the “Electric Avenue,” a network of natural hyperspace-like pathways between stars. I see no good reason for this ad-hoc invention; it’s basically taking FTL out of a ship’s engine and putting it into nature instead, and I don’t see how it benefited the story at all. Also unconvincing is the status of science in this future society, which sees Newton and Einstein as mythical Gods. Engineering is respected, but science has fallen by the wayside, with no progress in centuries. I find that just a little hard to believe.

From the experience I have of FLynn so far, it seems like he’s very knowledgeable about languages and this adds a level of linguistic richness to his writing. However, I can’t say those effects are entirely to my liking this time around. The heavy use of Irish brogue quickly gets annoying, but what might you expect when the standard human dialect is called Gaelactic? That wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, if Flynn hadn’t carried the Irish fascination entirely too far with the planet New Eireann; a general cultural resemblance (whether inherited or designed) I can buy, but not the idea that there is an inherently tragic Irish nature that persists over time and recreates that people’s conflicts on a distant planet hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

One thing I really like is the frame story around the main story. The frame takes place in a seedy spaceport bar, with a scarred storyteller relating the events of the Dancer’s discovery to a traveling harper who comes seeking the tale. The interactions between these two, and the storyteller’s penetrating commentary, made these chapters my favorite parts of the book.

There are plenty of items on both the “pro” and the “con” side here. Don’t look for anything amazingly fresh or groundbreaking in The January Dancer, but if a bit of enjoyable space adventure is on your agenda, you could certainly do worse.

Whole lotta Hyperion

hyperionIt no longer matters who consider themselves the masters of events. Events no longer obey their masters.

And so it is with the complex skein of events in this hefty pair of books by Dan Simmons. Taken together, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (published 1989 and 1990) represent 900+ pages of high-quality space opera able to simultaneously satisfy both fans of action/adventure and those who appreciate philosophical depth and the presentation of Big Ideas. All of those ingredients are present in

fallofhyperionabundance as Simmons weaves a vast tale of humanity a millennium from now, living in a far-flung empire of hundreds of worlds, as it faces threats to its existence in the form of war, betrayal, deception, and manipulation by adversaries both known and unknown wielding awesome powers beyond understanding. I’m reviewing these two books together because they really form one long continuous story, often referred to collectively as the Hyperion Cantos.

After the Earth was lost through an experiment gone wrong, humanity spread to the stars, and the Hegemony of Man now includes about two hundred worlds (the Web) connected by wormhole-based “farcasters” which allow instantaneous travel (the rich even have mansions with rooms on different planets!). Farcaster technology is beyond humanity’s understanding and was given to them by the TechnoCore, a population of AI’s who broke free from their human masters centuries ago and now live in their own separate society, but ostensibly on good terms with mankind, whose government they assist through the AI Advisory Council. Travel by spacecraft is of secondary importance, as it is quite time-consuming and complicated by relativistic effects, and is used mainly to worlds that don’t yet have farcasters.

Enter Hyperion, a frontier world outside the Web with a strange claim to fame: it’s the home of the Time Tombs, a valley full of mysterious artifacts that appear to be moving backwards in time. And the Tombs are the home of a terrifying creature known as the Shrike, a seemingly invincible 9-foot-tall 4-armed metallic being covered in sharp spikes and able to control time itself. No one knows the purpose of the Shrike and Tombs (well, not until the end of the story), but a tradition has formed over time: if a group of pilgrims travels there, one individual will have a wish granted, while all the others will face horrifying suffering at the hands (and spikes) of the Shrike.

As Hyperion opens, the Hegemony is on the verge of war with the Ousters, a branch of humanity that went into self-imposed exile long ago, choosing to roam space in their vessels and asteroids rather than being bound to planets. The Ousters have evolved away from the human norm and are seen as almost alien now. And they have an intense interest in the Time Tombs and Hyperion, an invasion of which seems imminent. Against this backdrop, with chaos looming on the horizon, a final Shrike pilgrimage is arranged, with seven unique individuals carefully chosen for reasons unknown to them. But then, they have their own reasons, which we learn about during their journey as they each share their story with the others, in the style of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This structure works well, and each story is fascinating in its own right — and much more so when you try to figure out the mystifying puzzle for which each character’s story provides some of the pieces. The characters themselves — soldier, detective, diplomat, priest, scholar, poet, and others — do what any good character should, drawing the reader in, making us try to figure out what makes them tick, and causing us to become emotionally invested in what happens to them. The novel closes with our pilgrims, having told their stories throughout the journey, just entering the valley of the Time Tombs.

The Fall of Hyperion picks up there, and takes a more straightforward narrative structure as all the individual stories blend together into one hugely complex story. As the pilgrims prepare to face the Shrike, Hyperion comes under attack, only one part of a wider war which threatens the entire Web itself, a war in which it is hard to tell who the enemy really is, and which brings long-held assumptions into question. The action is thick and fast, ranging over many planets (and the space battles between and around them), and the viewpoint switches frequently from character to character. Twists and revelations abound; it’s difficult to say more about the second book without giving too much away, so I’ll leave it at that.

The Hyperion Cantos is built from a rich array of themes and concepts, any one of which would have been a worthy subject for a novel in its own right. There is the theme of man vs. machine and what happens when we create artificial intelligence and it goes its separate way. There’s also the theme of stagnation vs. change. The Web has endured for many centuries virtually unchanged, indeed resisting change, while the Ousters have wholeheartedly embraced the inevitability of evolution and welcome it as the way forward. Related to the stagnation issue is the matter of over-reliance on technology that is not understood, and the possible disastrous consequences.

Another major idea used here is that of an evolved God (taking inspiration from Teilhard’s Omega Point) — in short, an Ultimate Intelligence as the endpoint of evolution far in the future, projecting its effects back in time. Would such a being be distinguishable from a “real” (i.e. supernatural) God? If not, what might that mean for religions based on such an Intelligence, mistaking its actual nature? Simmons draws fairly heavily on the concepts of Christianity, putting it in just this context. The Cantos involves religion in other ways as well. There is a constant thread of sin, atonement, and punishment running through the novels, as well as sacrifice. One of the pilgrims, Sol Weintraub, engages in an ongoing theological debate about obedience and sacrifice and whether or not God is owed them; this debate is largely centered on the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Weintraub comes to believe that mankind has matured past the point of blind obedience, and, in his dream conversations with a being he takes to be God, he boldly lays out his position:

“Listen! There will be no more offerings, neither child nor parent. There will be no more sacrifices for anyone other than our fellow human. The time of obedience and atonement is past. That’s all! Now either leave us alone or join us as a father rather than a receiver of sacrifices. You have the choice of Abraham!”

One final thing worth mentioning is Simmons’ extensive use of poetry; and by that I don’t mean simply quoting poetry (though there is some of that), but also the use of poets as very important central characters. For starters, one of the pilgrims, Martin Silenus, is a poet whose lifelong masterpiece-in-progress is called, fittingly enough, “Hyperion Cantos.” This epic work haunts and obsesses Silenus, and is the reason he agreed to join the pilgrimage. But even more fascinating is the crucial role played by another poet, namely John Keats, brought back to life, in a way, as a “cybrid” — an AI mind with an amazingly accurate reconstruction of Keats’ memories, placed in a body genetically identical to the original Keats. This “reborn” Keats is one of the most important characters of the entire story. In fact, the very title “Hyperion” is from a Keats poem. William Butler Yeats also gets some recognition; more than once his poem “The Second Coming” is referenced. You know, all that about the center not holding….. anarchy loosed upon the world…. some beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born. I’ve always loved that poem, and its use here seems very appropriate.

This has definitely been one of my more satisfying reads lately. There is also another pair of books forming a sequel to this pair: Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. They are on my reading list for the coming year, no doubt about that. I will also be looking at other work by Simmons, since Hyperion Cantos easily establishes his credentials as a writer of the first rank.ef