I come here to praise Vernor, and let you all in on a little not-so-secret:
I’ve been waiting for a sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep almost half my life. And I’m like one of those kids who stayed up until midnight to get Harry Potter in line and raced home to read it.
Earlier in the summer, my sister offered me a chance to crew on a large yacht she was the cook for that needed an extra hand. We sailed from the USVI straight up to Rhode Island, spending just a bit under two weeks at sea. And one of the reasons I agreed was that I got a free ticket and some time to spend after the journey in New York.
Sure, there’s all sorts of fun stuff to do in NYC. It’s the big city. Sure, as an author it’s fantastic to catch up with my editors and agents. But for me the sweetest part of my visit to a publishing house is usually that fellow book-loving people load me up with a bunch of books to take back home.
I mean, the reason I got into this whole mess of a career was that, primarily, I love to read. I love books.
And like any reader, I have certain favorite authors.
So imagine me standing in Art Director Irene Gallo’s office with my haul of free books, chatting. I’m just a day away from having been at sea for so long that I’m struggling to shake a fundamental inner-ear belief that the whole Flatiron Building is rocking back and forth. And that’s when I spot an advanced reviewer copy of Vernor Vinge’s The Children of The Sky.
“Can I just hold it?” I ask, near drooling.
“You like Vernor Vinge?” Irene asked.
As I said, like any reader, I have certain favorite authors.
“Tell you what,” Irene said. “Do you want a copy of the advanced copy and a chance to write something about Vernor for Tor.com?”
“Like what?” I asked. “I stopped reviewing a long while back, and I burnt out on being clever about textual analysis somewhere shortly after my senior year of English.”
“Well, whatever you’d like.”
“What about a half-disguised fan letter of appreciation?” I asked eagerly.
“Um okay, sure.”
Here’s the thing: I grew up on a boat in the Caribbean, and in the parts I grew up in there were few bookstores and libraries. Often many of the books I encountered were through these random shelves tucked into the corners of shops and Marina offices that had signs saying “take a book/leave a book.”
I’d long since locked into SF at a very early age as my preferred genre. But I wasn’t in a place to pick, as I basically just read whatever looked remotely interesting from the shelves.
And thus it was, my junior year of high school, that some amazing individual of remarkable taste left William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Bruce Sterling’s Islands in The Net, and Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep all on one shelf for me to pick up and find.
I read these three books back to back, all in one go in one week. To be honest, no reading jag has ever been quite able to hold up to that.
I’d been writing short stories since my sophomore year, but these books lit a fire under me. I wanted, more than anything, to figure out how Vernor did what he did.
Because holy crap, here was a book that just shot from the pages through my eyeballs back into my frontal gray matter, and then exploded and ricocheted around in the back of my head until everything was cored out and replaced with a succession of high concept awesomeness.
From the moment the researchers at High Lab begin tinkering with ancient, hidden data, you had a combination of Cthulu-esque horror being awakened, while realizing that this was space opera and modern day computer science being melded in a way that made me feel like I’d been graduated from cyberpunk into cyberpunk space opera.
As the Blight spreads throughout the universe, the hapless messages between alien user groups trying to figure out what the hell was happening was my first introduction to true net culture, growing up as I was on a boat with no such connection. It was heady, reading about alien emailers talking to each other across vast distances, commenting on the geopolitics of the novel. It was future and alien, even though I had no idea it was nascent and developing and that I would soon be one of those characters just a few years down the line when I started my first blog as a college student in the U.S..
But those are just small bits of the awesome that was in the book. Collective pack consciousness made out of biological creatures of course, why not? And why not make them a character? Isn’t a human a collection of autonomous interactions, some of them at odds? Why couldn’t an intelligent pack be a character?
And Pham Nuwen.
Well, he’s just awesome.
When I moved to the U.S. after a hurricane destroyed the boat I lived on, one of the things I set out to do was rebuild my library of favorite books. There wasn’t much room on the boat, so I usually kept that list down to 30 or so of my favorites and 10-20 rotating current reads.
A Fire Upon The Deep was my first repurchase with an eye toward getting my personal library back up.
A second benefit to being a writer these days is that I often get to meet (and sometimes chat) with these authors that had such a big impact on me. I’d been lucky enough to meet Vernor when he was the Guest of Honor at a nearby convention. But at ComicCon in 2008 I ended up at a gathering where, thanks to just plain luck, I got to chat with Vernor at length and confess what an impact the book had on me.
In fact, I do believe I started the conversation off with words something to the effect of “Dude, I’ve read A Fire Upon The Deep forty times!” and poor Vernor took a step back and gave me a look.
I had to very quickly explain that as a side affect of ADHD and dyslexia, I’d developed a rather quick reading pace; for me a duck is a puck is a buck and until I parse the words around them, I can’t trust them. If I read word by word, I tend to lose track of where I am. In order to read, I usually skim, and if I like a book, keep rereading it until it gets more and more detailed. A process not unlike rasterization, actually.
That being said, A Fire Upon The Deep is still, to this day, my most reread book by quite a margin (although The Hobbit does come close I used to reread it every year for a while).
Once reassured, Vernor and I ended up talking about even more stalkery writing stuff, like how I’d paid my sister $20 in high school to count every page in every chapter of A Fire Upon The Deep, and I then created a long scroll with every chapter, point of view character, part of the book and outline summary, and how many pages that chapter was, all laid out so I could create a visual map of the book’s structure (turns out Vernor had done much the same to prior authors, I was heartened to hear), and we talked about what we thought we’d learned from such exercises.
And mostly, what I wanted to ask him (as much fun as I was having) was “but when does the sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep come out?” Because I knew he was working on it.
But I didn’t dare.
Who needs the pressure? It would arrive when Vernor finished it, and when it came, I would be waiting to buy it. I’d been waiting for that book since my junior year of high school, I could wait longer.
But now that time is here! And it’s like Christmas came early for me.
So thank you, Vernor. Both for helping me become inspired to write myself, and for blowing my mind away back then. I wanted to write this before I disappeared for a few days. I’ve finished edits on books that I owe people, I’ve turned in articles, I’ve cleared my schedule.
This is going to be fun.
Tobias S. Buckell is the author of Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose. He has written novels for the Halo series, and recently released two audiobooks with Paolo Bacigalupi.