A Deepness In The Sky

I'm rereading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky for about the fifth time. As with any really good book, I pick up more nuances and concepts every time I read it. The following text contains spoilers, so if you haven't read it (and object to spoilers), go read it first.

In all the processes of prose analysis, my favourite is finding the author's voice. No matter how they try to conceal it, you find elements of the wrriter's opinions and biases, sometimes in the oddest of places. Vinge's opinions aren't hidden, in most of his works, and the most visible of them is the notion that generalists have an edge on specialists. I suspect that Vinge himself is a definite generalist, and very likely a human idea engine - that much is evident from the sheer range of concepts that come up in his books.

On that basis, Sherkaner Underhill in A Deepness In The Sky seems to be more Vinge's voice than any other character in it - even Pham Nuwen, although Pham is a generalist as well. And the specialists are in for a rough time throughout the book - the Emergent Focus technology is specialisation taken to the edge.

We're in an area of increasing specialisation now - my family know I work in computers, and some of them know roughly what I do. But if you ask any one of them what things within my general area I can and can't do, they're at a complete loss - indeed, so are all but my closest coworkers.

Yet there's a thread of thought running through science fiction, from older works right through to Vinge, that says that in the long run, generalists win.

From Heinlein: A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I think I'm going to be picking up on that idea for Starbound - and in and of itself, that idea settles one of the questions I've been batting back and forth - whether to use a class-based or skill-based system for the RPG arm. It's got to be skill-based.

Posted by Drew Shiel at April 6, 2006 1:17 PM

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Two half-hearted counterarguments -

1) Generalists only win in times of crisis and change, when the support structure that allows the spec* to strive and advance is disrupted. Most of the time, the spec* wins.

2) Most sci-fi stories where the generalist ones would probably be ones where there's a lone hero, who has to do everything on his own. An rpg, on the other hand, has a group of protagonists. Do you want them all to be generalists?

*: insert an ialist here. The spamfilter thinks I'm trying to sell you drugs.

Posted by: Gar at April 6, 2006 1:48 PM