A Fire Upon the Deep is the first book in the Zones of Thought series, a triumphant science-fiction masterpiece that forever marked Vernor Vinger as a leader in space operas. It’s an older book that was pushed upon me by several fellow lovers of science fiction and now that I’ve read it, I feel like I’ve finally ascended to a member of the club. It has won a number of awards including the coveted Hugo in 1993, A Prix Cosmos 2000 in 1995, and was nominated for Best Science Fiction Novel by the John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. It’s not like there’s any question on whether it’s good or not. The question is – can you understand it? Tor Science Fiction | February, 1993 | Paperback | 613 pp
The premise begins with a human expedition on a barren planet. There they find a treasure beyond all measure. It is a hidden library of information thought to be billions of years old with no known origins. The humans set up a colony and begin to explore the vast computer library hoping to find new technology they can profit from. Instead, they awaken a Blight, an artificial intelligence from the Transcend that has the power to destroy worlds, galaxies, and beyond. It has happened before. Just before the Blight is fully aware, the humans realize what they have created and rush to evacuate. Two ships leave the planet in haste. One is destroyed by the Blight, the other, filled with children in sleep stasis, escapes.
The ship nearly crash lands on a planet in the Slow Zone and is quickly attacked by a native race. The ship’s pilot and caretakers had been a family of four. The mother and father were killed in the attack, but the two children were taken prisoner by two opposing groups of the same race. The Tines are an intelligent doglike species with long necks who are in a medieval period of society. Individuals are composed of packs sharing a hive mind. One personality might have five or six ‘dogs’, another may have more. Removal of one member marks a decrease in intelligence and possible personality death. For the most part, a pack (representing one individual) is highly intelligent.
Ravna Bergsndot is the equivalent of an intergalactic librarian working at a communications Relay in the Beyond and is the only human there. She has heard of the Blight and about the humans who caused it, and that it is spreading. It is such a dangerous issue that even a Transcendant (think super intelligent aliens with Godlike powers who never bother with the rest of the known Universe) who calls himself the “Old One” has come down from the Transcend to use their Relay to study it in a frantic way. Ravna intercepts an SOS message coming from one of the survivors who landed on the Tines’ planet and she realizes that this is one of the two ships that escaped the Blight.
She has a hunch. It seems like the Blight is looking for something desperately. It destroyed one ship that tried to leave – why? Ravna theorizes that the ship might contain something that can destroy the Blight. She must begin communications with a child who is held hostage on a foreign planet and work to find a way to rescue them and their ship. She is getting close, and so is the Blight. Without warning, the Blight attacks Relay and destroys the entire hub. It also destroys Old One. A Blight that can destroy a God is not something to be taken lightly.
Ravna escaped within seconds on a ship that isn’t quite finished. She’s accompanied by the human vessel the Old One had used – a resurrected human named Pham – and two Skroderiders, a treelike species who are mobile through the use of an electronic cart. With the fate of the Universe at stake, and the annihilation of all humans in motion, they venture out into the Slow Zone to rescue the children and hopefully recover an artifact that can destroy the Blight. But everyone and everything in the Universe is hot on their trail.
Getting into the book is the hard part. Vernor Vinge is the master of “Show, Don’t Tell” and this is where it can get a little dicey. In the very beginning, when we meet the Tines and the humans are attacked, it is really difficult to understand what is going on, especially with the nature of the Tines. Nothing is explained – ever. You learn by reading, and the confusion can be extreme. I had to reread several passages in the first hundred or so pages multiple times while I grappled with the hive mind nature, finally realizing that each individual Tine has five or six members. I eventually cheated and looked up the description of the races. Naturally, I felt a little let down by my reading comprehension skills.
Once you get it, though, you’re in. And once you’re in, you’re not coming out. It’ll grab you and keep you up all night long.
There are a number of fascinating concepts in A Fire Upon the Deep. First are the Zones which dictate technology speed and intelligence. There is the Unthinking Depths where there is virtually no intelligent life, the Slow Zone (where Earth is) where technology and communications are exceptionally slow and could take years to escape even with a warp drive, the Beyond where most intelligent and technologically advanced societies live and mingle, and the Transcend which is limited to the Transcendents – super-intelligent beings. In a Universe where many intelligent beings are mixed with technology, literally spliced with it, venturing into the Slow Zone could spell death. And a Blight that controls technology can wipe out entire civilizations in the blink of an eye.
Another great concept is the Net. I suppose it’s not really a “new” concept, and hey – it already exists. It’s the description of the message boards that Ravna is constantly monitoring to find out news about the Blight which I relished. A somewhat nefarious, universal, interplanetary 4Chan. Also known as The Net of a Million Lies, it provides information from both reputable and popular posters who hold a lot of sway. One particular poster begins to associate the Blight with humans only. As his posts become increasingly polarizing and antagonistic, she feels a Universe of intelligent beings becoming radicalized by his propaganda. It isn’t long before humans are the center target of an universal genocide.
“Death to Vermin.”
The depictions of different alien races are also fascinating. The treelike creature who ride on carts and have foggy memories, warmongering butterflies, and elephantlike mechanics. But the best and fullest description belong to the Tines. It isn’t just their physical characteristics that make this story so great – it is their entire medieval society. They are violent and rash, perform complicated surgeries without anesthetics, lack indoor plumbing, have elaborate castles and military units, and fight for dominance. The sudden introduction of modern technology has the Tines spellbound. Over many months, the Tines learn new concepts through computers, new languages, and how to build deadly new weapons.
A Fire Upon the Deep is a stunning adventure through time and space that will compel you to gaze up at those stars and wonder what the hell is out there.
A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge