10 July 2012

Whatever happened to Sherkaner Underhill?

Science fiction | Vernor Vinge | A Fire Upon the Deep

I must confess, I was greatly excited to find that Vinge had written not one, but two, sequels to A Deepness in the Sky. I really wanted to know what happened to Sherkaner Underhill and the rest of the supersmart aliens who found humans cute.

Well, I never did. The sequel, A Fire Upon the Deep, takes on the iconic Pham Nuwen part 2. You know, I know, everyone who read the first book knows, that Pham Nuwen was a legend. A solver of impossible problems (not really, but it will be a spoiler for Deepness if I tell you more). He's back, after several thousand years of being left for dead.

But let's back up a bit. Fire begins with humans well settled in the outer reaches of the galaxy. For unspecified reasons, Vinge decided that going to the centre of the galaxy to find higher technical civilisations wouldn't work. As you get deeper in the gravity well, therefore, tech slows down, sapients become stupider, things go bad. As you move out, though, things speed up, magic becomes possible: antigravity, FTL travel, transcendent intelligences, the works. Every species' goal, then, is to investigate every possibility of becoming transcendent itself. With help and shortcuts from older transcendent Powers, if possible.

However, they know from the gww (galaxy wide web, ha ha, not that Vinge calls it anything but the Net of a Million Lies), that the process of waking up old archives is fraught with danger, and carefully locate High Lab far away from civilisation. Except they make the mistake of bringing their kids along.

Anyhow, low bandwidth communication between species (I suppose in the early days of the Net, a speed of several kbps was considered to be really cutting edge futuristic) tracks the progress of the new transcendent, which turns out to be an ancient evil that ensnares all the humans on High Lab, except the kids, which the Countermeasure helps two adults to save in coldsleep boxes, and transport at great risk to a world in the Slow Zone, where they hope to set up a signal and call for help.

But there are native intelligences on the planet, some things which are a bit like large, dog-sized long-necked ratlike creatures, which, we slowly realise, are made up of packs. Individuals have no intelligence; only a pack of several individuals is intelligent, but too many together, and the 'mind-noise' destroys intelligence again. Vinge is good at inventing aliens.

These critters are at a medieval history level, and some of them attack the ship, kill the adults and several children. 8 year old Jefri and his 13 year old sister Johanna, who dubs them Tines, become the surviving pawns in the low-level power play.

In the meantime, in the high-level power play, Ravna Bergnsdot, the lone human in the internet hub called Relay, is approached for help in understanding a human found in a really ancient dead ship, who is found to be revivable after all, and like no modern human. Pham Nuwen is back. Or is he? You know, I know, that Pham is real. But does Ravna, and more to the point, does Pham?

How the super evil, the Blight, then attacks, and how Pham and Ravna race to save the children as well as the galaxy, is the rest of the book. There are a few more aliens to meet on the way, don't worry.

Vinge specialises in the known evil plot and the unknown villain. You see this first in Grimm's World, the first part of which I read way back soon after it was first published (Eeee, I just dated myself!) and then again in Deepness, which was one suspenseful book, and you see it again in the maneouvering of the tines.

Now, I shall proceed with the third book in the series, which, as you already know, I made the mistake of reading 11 chapters of, before realising I was building up spoilers and reading out of sequence. Sigh.

No, actually, I will finish rereading Neal Asher's Gridlinked, which I stretched out a hand and picked up to read a couple of pages of, in a free moment, and which I then compulsively started from the beginning and am reading through to the end in a helpless fashion. Then I will get back to The Children of the Deep, which I left at another unexpected-villains-start-winning point, always a depressing stage in any book, and particularly with a master like Vinge. When I review Gridlinked, I will muse about ruthlessness in writers, and whether it is a good thing or not, with side comments on George RR Martin.

On the minus side, I never did get to know what happened to the inimitable Sherkaner Underhill and his lovely family. Wail.


  1. I thought it very clear that Sherkaner and his loyal but badly injured seeing-eye bug were going to wander off and die. However, I too wanted a sequel that would tell us what happened to his wife, Victory, and the kids and their whole civilization.

  2. Remember, however, that the nature of the Spider metabolism made it possible that if he could find a deep warm spot, such as the planet posseses, he could hibernate. That's why nobody was certain that he was dead.

  3. The low bandwidth in "A Fire Upon the Deep" only applied to FTL communications. Also, it was a great comedy vehicle to present a network similar to the early days of the Internet.

  4. We do not know what exactly what happened to him, but we are given the indication that he is alive. At the very end of the book, the character Anne Reynolt puts forth the idea that Sherkaner Underhill is still alive in deep hibernation. Reynolt correctly points out that Wander-Deep (the spider instinct to burrow if caught in the open during a darkness) is not well understood by humans. Underhill himself was an atypical spider that regularly had paradigm changing ideas. Reynolt supposes that underhill went into long natural hibernation based in part on wonder deep so that he can "outlast all of the mysteries" (waking up when the spider planet made it's way through the core of the galaxy and awaken at a time when it would be possibly to understand the origins of the on-off star and his planet). Victory (Underhill's daughter) thought about this and softly said "It could be...it could be. We don't really know where he landed on the alto plano. If it was something he scouted out before, he could have a chance...