A Deepness in the Sky: A Fable of Liberty and Tyranny

A Deepness in the Sky is easily in my top three favorite science fiction novels of all time. It is a story that envisions what humanity’s spacefaring future might be, and the questions we’ll have to answer when making first contact. Best of all, it is about the eternal struggle between liberty and tyranny.

Vernor Vinge has a remarkable talent for world-building. In this book he constructs a universe in which planetary civilizations rise and fall, while a culture of traders called the Qeng Ho (pronounced “Cheng Ho”) shuttle across the cosmos in great ramscoop fleets. The traders themselves live on their ships in a commercial meritocracy, and through their extensive travel and trade manage to spark settled human planets that have fallen into poverty, and glean the best advances from worlds that have come up with new inventions.

The story begins with the discovery of a non-human intelligence orbiting a mysterious star making its first radio signals. A Qeng Ho fleet rushes to investigate, only to be met by a fleet calling themselves Emergents. The Emergents come from an authoritarian society, as opposed to the free-trading meritocracy enjoyed by the Qeng Ho. The Emergents are not merely totalitarians. They have invented a unique technology that allows them to hijack human minds, and turn those humans into highly efficient automatons. This process called “focus” is a form of slavery, and appears to be more than a match for the sophisticated technological automation used by the Qeng Ho.

From the very first meeting of these two societies, there is tension. The two are competitors. Whoever is able to open trade first with the newly discovered race of “Spiders” on the planet below will enjoy unheard-of profits. Cooperation would benefit them both, but as in real life, authoritarians are not as interested in cooperation as they are in domination.

Almost immediately, the Emergents launch an attack on the Qeng Ho fleet. They overwhelm and take over what’s left of the trader fleet after only one skirmish. Some of the Qeng Ho are even “Focused” and turned into slaves.

The element of Focus is itself a metaphor in this story. The Qeng Ho utilize highly advanced technological automation to make their fleets work. The Emergents on the other hand use an equivalent of slave labor: Focused humans are robbed of their individual initiative and turned into savants dedicated to a specific task. The two approaches to running a fleet achieve the same end — and it turns out Focus is even more effective. But does that make it right?

After the Emergent conquest, with no central leadership, practically no resources, and no reinforcements, it seems like the Qeng Ho are doomed to stay slaves forever. But what happens next closely resembles what has actually happened in real historical cases on Earth, and matches what an Austro-libertarian might predict in such a scenario.

First, the Emergents ban trade, as they intend to centrally manage all resources that the subjugated Qeng Ho receive. Predictably, black markets appear. The Qeng Ho don’t respect the new authority and are accustomed to getting what they need by trading with each other. Their market has become even more important to them, since the conquering Emergents have made everything scarcer. The Emergent leaders tried to fight the black markets, but eventually were forced to permit trade again. It was the only way to keep the Qeng Ho from outright rebellion. This closely resembles what happens in regimes like North Korea, where a government originally claims to give the people everything they need, but eventually, as central planning fails, they have to look the other way while black markets do the job instead.

In this universe, travels between star systems can take centuries, and the planetary stops can last for decades. As the years wear on, the Qeng Ho and Emergent societies gradually blend, although the Emergents are a ruling class.

Without spoiling too much, the contrast between the authoritarians and free-traders comes to a climax when a few enterprising individuals make a bold gamble to seize control of the fleet and stop the Emergents from committing an atrocity against the Spider world.

You can hardly find a better metaphor for authoritarianism than the Emergents, and a more inspiring representative of free trade than the Qeng Ho. If you read any Vernor Vinge, please include this book.