A Fire Upon the Deep

January 30, 2012 at 12:25 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments
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It’s by no means his first novel, but although in the end Vernor Vinge will probably be best remembered for coining the term Singularity, his reputation as a fiction author is founded on A Fire Upon the Deep, his first book in the Zones of Thought setting published twenty years ago in 1992.

Vinge posits a universe in which the physics of relativity vary according to one’s proximity to the galactic core. The Earth is in the “Slow Zone” where nothing moves faster than the speed of light, placing harsh limits on travel and computational complexity. In the “Unthinking Depths” even closer to the core, even computation of the sort performed by the human brain becomes impossible. But in the “Beyond” on the fringe of the galaxy, starships can cross between stars in days while weak AI, nanotechnology, and antigravity all become feasible. It’s only in the “Transcend” between galaxies, however, that the limits on computational complexity allow for the creation of the superintelligence discussed in Singularity theory. While the Beyond is home to many human and alien civilizations, the Transcend is an almost divine place, populated by, well, transcendent entities that are the creation or sometimes descendants of civilizations from the Beyond. It’s the realm of gods, alluring but extremely dangerous.

The story begins when a human civilization in the Beyond discover a long-forgotten ancient archive just across the border in the Transcend and end up accidentally releasing a malevolent superintelligence, a demon instead of a god. Whereas typical Transcend entities mostly ignore the Beyond and evolve so quickly they are gone in less than ten years, what the humans found is a “Blight” that is not only obsessed with dominating all life the Transcend and the Beyond, but one obsessed in a stable, long-lasting way.

From there the story plays out in two arenas. A single family, the lone survivors of the ill-fated investigators, flees the Blight down into the slower depths of the Beyond, almost into the Slow Zone, eventually crash landing on an uncharted planet populated by aliens with only medieval technology. Meanwhile, in the middle Beyond, a human librarian named Ravna teams up with two plantlike aliens and Pham Nuwen, a human who is some sort of reconstruction of a Slow Zone interstellar trader, on a desperate mission to recover the crashed ship in hopes that their escape preserved some weapon the embattled civilizations of the Beyond can use against the seemingly unstoppable Blight.

One might think that the story taking place on the backwater alien world would be dull compared to the epic space opera of the story’s other strand, but in fact this turns out to be the more interesting of the two. The aliens, eventually called Tines, are pack intelligences whose single mind is comprised of several individuals whose thoughts are linked by constant sonic communication. Although psychologically the Tines are similar to humans in desires and motivations, this difference in their nature has a number of interesting effects that make them seem convincingly alien no matter how familiar their thoughts might be. For example, two packs can’t come closer than a few meters to each other before the crosstalk of their thoughts makes it hard for either to think, meaning Tines live in a sort of physical isolation, almost never drawing close to anyone else. More significantly, while individual members have limited lifespans, each overall pack can take in new members to replace those that die and thus can theoretically live forever, though each change in members alters pack’s personality to some degree. Traditional Tine societies have allowed this process to occur more or less at random, but the ship fleeing the Blight crashes near the frontier kingdom led by Woodcarver, who has spent centuries working toward a rational approach to self-improvement. Woodcarver’s rationalism makes her ready to accept the opportunity for technological change offered by the arrival of a starship, but perhaps even more ready are the followers of Flenser, her former student. Flenser, feeling that while Woodcarver had the right idea her ethics were slowing her down, created a society that worships mental discipline and cultivates it through the most ruthless of means. If his followers can control the starship’s technology, they’ll have the means to dominate their world.

I’ve spent more time than usual describing the novel’s setting because the setting is a lot more interesting than most. Both the Zones of Thought space civilization and the Tines’ pack psychology could easily serve as the foundation for an entire novel by themselves, so taken together they provide a formidable array of situations and ideas, formidable enough to carry a novel with mediocre characters and plot. And so it proves, for although Vinge’s writing in Fire Upon the Deep is much improved from his earlier week, it was the novel’s ideas that won it enough votes to tie for the 1992 Hugo for Best Novel.

That’s not to say the plot and the characters are bad, exactly. The book’s “good guys” are pleasant-enough company, with the exception of Pham Nuwen, who displays none of the charisma the narrative imputes to his character (and which Vinge would more convincingly render in 1999’s sort-of prequel Deepness in the Sky). Vinge takes his characters to interesting places, forcing them to try to work out who they can trust and how far while under the greatest possible stress, but their reactions to the unprecedented events of the narrative (the destruction of multiple stellar civilizations for the Beyonders, the arrival of aliens for the Tines) are often less than convincing. As for the plot, it’s a widescreen adventure yarn that’s a good deal less exhilarating than it ought to be due to some awkward pacing and an ending that needed some better setup to be truly satisfying. It’s a good novel, but its parts are greater than their sum.

One of these great parts is the principal antagonist, Lord Steel, who at first seems to be a laughably cardboard villain. Like a Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie, he’s willing to kill anyone who gets between him and the power offered by the crashed starship, and do it in the name of a poisonous ideology. Although the Flenserist philosophy’s rejection of empathy and worship of cold-blooded rationality could have been used to satirize or otherwise comment on the excesses of techno-futurism, Vinge never seriously explores their ideas. Lord Steel is just a Bad Guy, the sort of Bad Guy who is fully aware and totally comfortable with the fact he is a Bad Guy, which is disappointing and fairly boring.

Except Vinge takes boring Lord Steel and throughout the novel puts him in situations that force him to play against type. Lord Steel wants nothing more out of life than to be the boring Bad Guy, but the only way he can harness the power of offworld technology for world domination is by convincing a young human boy he’s actually a good guy. Rather than twirling his metaphorical mustache, he has to endure hugs and act as a surrogate parent for both the human boy and a young Tine. Worst of all, he has to do this under the gaze of his feared master, Flenser…kind of. If Flenser was really present, he’d be in charge and Steel would be comfortable in the familiar role of chief minion, but Flenser is only kind of present. Trapped by traditionalist enemies before the novel began, Flenser took the radical step of breaking his six member pack into three pairs that were forced into three other packs. Avoiding detection, one of these packs, originally a schoolteacher named Tyrathect, returned to Flenser’s stronghold as the starship crashed. But the others did not survive, which means Lord Steel is still in charge, struggling to play the part of gentle father figure while someone who is two thirds schoolteacher and one third history’s greatest monster watches and critiques his performance.

The Lord Steel character is a fun element in what is overall a fun and idea-filled book, but I suspect readers who prefer character-driven narratives or stylish prose will find the novel unsatisfying. Judged on its ideas, it still stands out from the science fiction crowd, and (no doubt in part due to Vinge’s computer science background) has held up surprisingly well for a twenty-year old book. It’s been too long since I’ve read Deepness in the Sky to compare them, but Fire is easily the best of Vinge’s other novels, including the recent sequel, which will soon be reviewed in this space.

The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

January 12, 2012 at 1:44 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, got great reviews and was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula. As is my custom, when I heard it was part of a trilogy I put it on my “to read” list, avoided synopses, and waited to read it until the trilogy was published so I could read it all at once. This is one of those times where my all-at-once approach came back to bite me. There are trilogies that are really one story (the vast majority these days, it seems to me) and trilogies that are really what it says on the tin, three stories. The Inheritance Trilogy is an example of the latter. The three books share a setting, a few characters, and should definitely be read in the order published, but they really are self-contained. For reasons I will get into in a minute, I suspect reading them all at once wasn’t merely unnecessary but even a little harmful.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins with an interesting combination of character and setting. Yeine Darr is the hereditary chief of a small, unimportant kingdom who is summoned to the court of the Arameri, the hegemonic rulers of the world. For many centuries the Arameri have lived decadently in their palatial tower of Sky, ruthlessly destroying anyone who goes against their “suggestions” but otherwise enforcing a general peace. Yeine’s mother was heir to the Arameri throne but abandoned her birthright to marry Yeine’s father. Both of Yeine’s parents died in her childhood, but unexpectedly Yeine’s status as a potential heir to the throne is reinstated, putting her in deadly competition with two of her cousins. She has only a few weeks to learn to navigate the traitorous court politics of Sky, find out the real reason her mother left, and understand why Yeine has been recalled. But complicating all this are the captive gods.

The reason the Arameri have dominated the world for millennia is their control of the Enefadah, four gods who were on the wrong end of an ancient power struggle in the pantheon and sentenced by the triumphant Itempas, god of order and daytime, with an unbreakable compulsion to obey any order given to them by the Arameri. The Enefadah are a compelling creation: powerful enough to destroy the world but bound to obey mortals, they hate their imprisonment and especially despise their Arameri jailers. If an Arameri ever gives them a command vague enough they can interpret it as something the Arameri doesn’t want (especially the Arameri’s painful death) they seize the opportunity, making them a double-edged weapon.

Yeine ends up falling in love with one of these captive gods, Nahadoth. As the cthonic god of darkness and along with Itempas one of the three supreme gods, Nahadoth falls pretty cleanly into the romantic stereotype of the older, theoretically more powerful, alluringly dangerous, but in important ways helpless male. I can’t say I read a lot of romantic fiction but the use of this trope in Twilight has made it feel overused even to me. At any rate, you can take that or leave it, but apart from that emotional story there’s plenty more interesting material in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Yeine spends most of her time trying to figure out the truth behind the story’s four formative events: the war in heaven that resulted in Nahadoth and the other Enafadah being imprisoned, the circumstances surrounding her mother’s departure from the Arameri before Yeine was born, the eventual deaths of Yeine’s parents, and finally the nature of the ceremony by which power will soon be transferred to whoever is designated the heir. The answers to these questions more than pay off the setup, making what could have been a problematic ending still feel quite satisfying. Yeine ends up being a good deal more passive than I prefer protagonists to be and the ending relies a little too much on previously unmentioned metaphysics, but all in all The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a very strong novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

What I don’t recommend is doing what I did and reading the entire trilogy all at once. It’s not that the two books that follow are bad. I’ve heard some people say the second book, The Broken Kingdoms, is even better than the first. Personally I would put it a notch or two below, and the third book, The Kingdom of Gods, is somewhat less effective than the second. But I think I would have liked both better if I’d read them as they came out, that is to say, with months separating the experience of each book, because Jemisin has done something a little unusual with this trilogy. Although each story advances the setting both chronologically and conceptually, all three are variations on the same theme in an unusually thorough sense. Each novel is centered around a mortal / god romance. In each case, the mortal is young while the god is many thousands of years old, but there’s something special about the mortal that draws the god in that is connected in some way with the mortal’s lineage. The god is always male, always very dangerous, always paradoxically vulnerable, always inhibited, and for most of each novel there is considerable question about how much he really feels for the mortal until the end, when of course love is fully affirmed. Although each book threatens its narrator with death in very different ways, all three resolve this side of the plot via metaphysical innovation.

I’ve had to describe the similarities carefully of course, because certainly there are differences. Yeine and the second book’s narrator, Oree Shoth, are very different people, and in the third book, the god is the narrator while the mortal side of the equation is two people, a twin brother and sister. It’s also the case that various problems that affect two of the books are not shared by a third. Where the first book has a strong intrigue plot with a number of well-drawn antagonists (and one, Scimina, who is not so well-drawn but at least acts out of a very understandable desire for power), the latter two each have cackling villains bent on destroying the world. In the second book, Oree Shoth spends a good deal of time with Shiny, but in the first and the third, love at almost the first sight sparks a romance that is portrayed as a profound relationship despite the lovers never spending very much time in each other’s company (understandable on the part of the young mortals but considerably less so for the immortals).

These similarities and near-similarities make each book of the trilogy feel very much like a variation on a single theme rather than independent stories, at least when read all at once the way I did. It’s a comprehensive elaboration on mortal-god relationships in the setting, I suppose, but I can’t help but feel this sum is rather less than the sum of its parts. One issue is that I became less interested in the gods and the metaphysics within which they operate the more I learned about them. As with most fantasy gods, these are portrayed as similar to humans in thoughts and emotions but possessing supernatural powers, but while we are told most people worship them, somehow this seemingly important element of religious life is never depicted. The three central gods of day, night, and twilight are associated with and responsible for natural phenomena like their polytheistic antecedents as well as limited in certain ways by a mysterious metadivine realm, but they are also half-heartedly said to be transcendent like a monotheist God, working together to create the entire universe, which here is depicted as the mind-bogglingly large universe of modern astronomy, not the cosy Earth-centered universe of the ancients. There are throwaway references to other stars and planets, but everything important in the emotional lives of the gods is centered around the human world, as if the entire rest of the universe is devoid of life or even interest. Below them, the countless lesser “godlings” have no connection whatsoever with the natural world but seem to be associated, at random, with various concepts. There’s a godling of wisdom, a godling of war, and so forth. Not only does their aspect drive their interest, but it provides them with antitheses that can harm or even kill them. This seems all right at first, like when the godling of obligation is weakened by even the suggestion that he would break his word, but it ends up feeling arbitrary, particularly with Sieh, the godling whose nature is explored the deepest. Sieh, we are told, is the godling of childhood, but this is interpreted rather more expansively than, say, the godling of hunger. Sieh prefers and even gains strength from acting like a child: playing silly games like tag and engaging in juvenile tricks. The problem is that not only is Sieh the oldest of the godlings, he often acts like it, discussing important issues with adult humans and other godlings. He also desires and frequently has sex. Yet in the third book it turns out the idea of being a father causes him pain. I suppose you or I could come up with a tortured explanation as to why this would be, but surely it makes just as much sense that he would have no interest in sex and want to avoid it?

These concerns weren’t an issue reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where I was pulled along by the fluid first-person narration, the fairly unique feel of the gods’ captivity, and the questions and revelations about the past. The Broken Kingdoms carried on those first two virtues, but in place of the first book’s revelations it featured a narrative where almost every reader spends almost the entire book knowing considerably more about what’s going on than any of the main characters. That’s not bad, I guess, but it’s definitely less satisfying. The Kingdom of Gods didn’t have anything to do with captivity, the narration was undermined by an unlikeable and, worse, unconvincing main character, and the increasingly unconvincing metaphysics of god(ling)hood were front and center. The trilogy’s name is a reference to the fact that the four mortal characters destinies are shaped by what they inherit from their parents, but as the titles of the two sequels suggest, as the trilogy proceeds the emphasis of the story is increasingly on the gods, culminating in a conclusion that relegates its mortal protagonists and their concerns to the sideline. For those readers who remain interested in the mechanics of godhood right up to the end, I think the conclusion might prove stirring, but to me it fell flat almost to the point of being actively depressing.

The grain of salt I’ll toss on to all this is that I think both of the latter books shared some virtues with the first book, particularly the quality of writing and the setting, that I took for granted having just read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. While I am somewhat lukewarm on the trilogy as a whole, I definitely recommend the first book. If you like it as much as I did (and most people seem to have liked it even more) then you’ll be reading the next book no matter what I say, but my advice is to consider reading a couple unrelated books in between.

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