A Fire Upon the Deep

January 30, 2012 at 12:25 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments

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.


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  1. Nice review. I enjoyed this one, myself, although it did have some slow parts. Fascinating ideas.

  2. […] the benefit of having recently reread A Fire Upon the Deep, I could see an additional plus to a sequel that focused solely on the […]

  3. Excellent blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you
    knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get opinions from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thank you!

  4. I tore through this book a couple of years ago. I thought the world building was great and it was a great summer read. Nice little review you’ve got here, too. Brought back a lot of nice memories of the book.

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