A Deepness in the Sky
Vernor Vinge only wrote two novels in the nineties, this and the 1992 A Fire upon the Deep, which won that year's Hugo award. The books are set in the same universe, though differ a lot from each other. Where AFutD was pure quill space opera where the action was set over galactical distances, here the stage is just one star system. Theoretically, A Deepness in the Sky is a prequel to A Fire upon the Deep, but I strongly recommend to read the books in publication order, otherwise you miss a lot of the tension in this book.
The story proper begins when alien radio signals are recieved from the OnOff Star, a fairly normal star, but with the singular habit to turn itself periodically off at times. Two human expeditions arrive at the star, one a Queng Ho expedition, the other from a local culture called the Emergents. While the Queng Ho are libertarian traders, the Emergent are collectivistic and tyrannical in nature. Mutual distrust lead to a short battle and the survivors have to work together to stay alive.
With the Quen Ho expedition, unknowingly to all, the legendary founder of them, Pham Nugen is on board. Singlehandedly he's the resistance against the Emergent rule after the first disastrous battles. Through plot, counterplot and a few reality shifts the battle for freedom is fought, while at the same time the Spider world is investigated and helped.
The second story line is set on the alien world and follows the adventures of Sherkaner Underhill, who combines the best qualities of Einstein, Edison, Opperheimer and others. His world is rapidly changing and within the story, which is spread out over a fair number of years, the tech level gets up from twenties equivalent to better then contemporary. Underhill is the driving force behind all this.
The Spider good guys, a "nation" called the Accord, has to withstand and crush challenges of less enlightened "countries" whils avoiding nuclear armageddon. Behind the scenes, the humans are meddling to help their friends, or are they?
This book is brilliantly entertaining and thought provoking. Paradigms are shifted several times in the story and nothing is quite what it seems at first, up until the very end of the book. At the same time, thanks to what we know from having read A Fire upon the Deep, there is also an underlying irony and sadness which permeates this novel, a sense of futility.