A Fire Upon the Deep

Like most New Yorker’s I read a lot. This is a function of having a daily commute between Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and the East Village in Manhattan, leaving me with a half hour or more, twice daily, with little to do other than sit on the train and read. I don’t tend to select especially challenging material for the ride. It simply isn’t an environment that lends itself to such. But a good espionage book, some non-fiction, a comic book — stuff like that. Recently, as I’ve mentioned previously, I started exploring the world of science fiction books from the 70s, 80s, and a bit of the 90s. Some of them were books I’d read before and wanted to reacquaint myself with. Most are things that I completely missed, having been largely unconnected to any sort of conduit that would have clued me in to such things. I have no idea what I was doing most of my life.

Anyway, one of the books I picked up after reading a few “what are the best space opera books?” threads around the Internet was A Fire Upon the Deep by Verner Vinge. I knew nothing about it except that it was described as hard sci-fi meets space opera, and that the author delighted in creating intricately detailed descriptions of the universe he created for the book. So in I went, and now that I’ve come out on the other side, I have to admit that my breath has been taken away. It’s an absolutely stunning book, one with a tremendous amount of thought and imagination put into it. Challenging without being impenetrable. Thoughtful without being pretentious. And one that stays with me long after I’ve finished.

The story involves to separate but connected adventures — the first about two children whose ship crash lands on a planet whose dominate intelligent species are dog-like creatures that have evolved a basically medieval society and who operate in psychically linked packs that allow several members to act as one, with the particular strengths and weaknesses of each individual member contributing to the personality of the whole. The second story involves a human archivist who finds herself on a mission to recover a mysterious “something” that is suspected to be the key to defeating an indescribably powerful malignant force that has been unleashed upon the galaxy. The stores are intertwined since that something happens to be aboard the wrecked ship that delivered the children to the planet on which they are stranded, their parents having been members of a research colony that unwittingly revived and unleashed the power that is now consuming much of the galaxy.

In Vinge’s vision of space, the galaxy is divided into “zones of thought.” At the outer edge of the galaxy is The Transcend, where being scan attain godlike powers and create technology far beyond the comprehension of others. Below that is The Beyond, where much of galactic culture and civilization occurs,and where highly evolved technology has made space travel relatively quick and easy. Most of the technology from The Transcend can function properly within The Beyond, and usually it’s species from The Beyond that get ambitious enough to move their civilization toward The Transcend in pursuit of godhood.

Below that are The Slow Zone, the area of the universe where faster-than-light travel is impossible, where space faring races spend decades, even centuries in cold sleep as they travel from one destination to the other. Even within the Lower Beyond, the closer you get to the Slowness, the more unruly your technology becomes. Transcendent technology becomes almost unusable. And once you cross over, it won’t work at all. It is near the division of The Beyond and The Slowness that Ravna and her crew from the Upper Beyond find themselves traveling in hopes of rescuing the marooned children and the artifact on board their ship that might half The Blight that is ravaging much of The Beyond.

Below The Slowness, nearer the galactic core, are The Unthinking Depths, but the less said about them, the better.

Vinge puts tremendous effort into explaining how this version of the galaxy works, just as he puts great effort into imagining races and cultures that are totally alien, as opposed to being just another group of humanoids, but with different color skin and maybe some forehead ridges. Ravna the archivist is accompanied on her quest by three others. One is a fellow human, though hardly like her. The otehr two are basically sentient potted plants. As The Blight, which is so dangerous and alien that it can’t even be fully described, ravages The Beyond and, it seems, even parts of The Transcend, Ravna and her compatriots find themselves pursued by races controlled by The Blight, not to mention a fleet of genocidal, jack boot wearing thug butterflies.

While that adventure plays out over millions of light years, the children, Johanna and Jefri, each find themselves the guest of two opposing kingdoms of what they come to call The Tines. It is this culture that Vinge puts the most work into fleshing out, and it’s thoroughly fascinating. What i like best is that Vinge doesn’t explain things in large chunks at the beginning. you are thrown more or less into the middle of things, and the nature of the creatures and the society come sin naturally occurring bits and pieces, almost like you yourself have been cast into the thick of things and have to scramble to figure it out. It requires a little more work on the part of the reader, and a willingness to accept being lost and confused in the good faith that the picture will crystallize as you read on.

There’s considerably more to A Fire Upon the Deep than I’ve summarized here. After all, it’s several hundred pages long, and the story covers millions of light years and multiple planets. Vinge writes a mix of space opera — what we’d call action-adventure — and hard science fiction — which is concerned with creating and describing believable, technically detailed societies and science. The two styles of science fiction don’t always meet, and when they do, it’s not always pretty. But Vinge nails it, resulting in a book that shifts seamlessly between galaxy-spanning adventure, philosophy, and scientific detail.

Very impressive. Highly recommended. With modern science fiction being so little more than an action movie with some sci-fi sets and equipment strapped on, it’s refreshing to go back and lose oneself in something that realizes that full potential of the genre and knows how to mix big action with thought-provoking concepts and incredible imagination. It resulted in a lot of late nights for me, as I stayed up well past any reasonable hour because I didn’t want to stop reading.

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