Hrunkner Unnerby and the Shallowness of Progress

Apropos of absolutely nothing—and would I lie to you about that?—ever since early 2020, I keep finding myself thinking about Hrunkner Unnerby, one of the characters in the "B" story of Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky.

The B story focuses on spider-like aliens native to a planet whose star "turns off" for 215 years out of every 250, during which time life on the planet goes into hibernation. The aliens' reproductive cycle is synced with the appearance and disappearance of their sun, resulting in discrete birth cohorts: almost all children in a generation are the same age, conceived just before the world goes into hibernation, and born when the sun re-emerges. Rare "oophase" (out of phase) children are regarded as unnatural and discriminated against.

Our protagonists are Sherkaner Underhill (mad scientist extraordinaire), Gen. Victory Smith (an oophase military prodigy, and Underhill's wife), and Sgt. Hrunkner Unnberby (an engineer, and Underhill and Smith's friend and comrade from the Great War). After the war, Underhill and Smith deliberately conceive children out of phase. Underhill is motivated by a zeal for progress: a champion of plans to use the recent discovery of atomic power to keep civilization running while the sun is off, he reasons that the anti-oophase taboo will be unnecessary in the new world they're building. Smith seems motivated to pass on her oophase legacy to her children and give them a more supportive environment than the one she faced.

Unnerby is horrified, but tries to keep his disapproval to himself, so as not to poison the relationship. Besides being old war friends, Underhill and Smith depend on Unnerby for peacetime engineering work, preparing for the coming nuclear age. Underhill and Smith name one of their younger children after Unnerby ("Little Hrunk").

Still, there are tensions. When Unnerby visits Underhill's home and meets the children, Underhill expresses a wish that Unnerby had visited earlier, prompting the latter to acknowledge the elephant in the room:

Unnerby started to make some weak excuse, stopped. He just couldn't pretend anymore. Besides, Sherkaner was so much easier to face than the General. "You know why I didn't come before, Sherk. In fact, I wouldn't be here now if General Smith hadn't given me explicit orders. I'd follow her through Hell, you know that. But she wants more. She wants acceptance of your perversions. I—You two have such beautiful children, Sherk. How could you do such a thing to them?"

Underhill is resolute, convinced that Society's prejudices can be overcome after they are shown to be irrational. (The fact that one of the children is intellectually challenged doesn't faze him; that could be a coincidence.) The children host a "Children's Hour of Science" radio program, without their oophase status being public knowledge at first. Underhill hopes the program will help normalize oophase people when the stars' ages eventually leak.

During a crisis in which the children have been kidnapped by agents of a foreign power, Smith blows up at Unnerby when he makes some tone-deaf remarks. "For years you've pretended to be a friend, but always sneering and hating us. Enough!" she cries out, striking him. She continues to hold a grudge against him for years.

Smith and Unnerby eventually meet again as the sun is growing cold. Unnerby feels the unease of people being awake this long into the Dark, and senses the same in Smith. "You feel the same as I do about it, don't you?" he asks her. She reluctantly concedes this, and notes that their Society is running up against a lot of instinct.

I appreciate the relative even-handedness with which Vinge presents this fictional world. A lot of authors in the current year would be determined to present the "progressive" position as self-evidently correct and its enemies as malevolent fools (even in an alien Society which has no Watsonian reason to map cleanly onto our own), but I find it easy to empathize with both Smith and Unnerby.

And apropos of absolutely nothing, I empathize with Unnberby's efforts to reconcile his duties as a friend with his understanding of what is right. The people he loves having been taken possesion of by an idea, he knows to separate the idea from the people. The sergeant is ever-ready to serve, even as he chokes on the message that has no hope of getting through past an ideologue's exuberance: every improvement is necessarily a change, but not every change is an improvement.

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