Jun 11 2009 3:57pm

The Net of a Million Lies: Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

Any one of the ideas in A Fire Upon the Deep would have kept an ordinary writer going for years. For me it’s the book that does everything right, the example of what science fiction does when it works.

There’s a universe where not only technology but the very ability to think increases with distance from the galactic core, and the universe is divided into “zones of thought.” In the “Slow Zone” you can’t have true AI or FTL. In the “Beyond” you can have those things, but nothing that takes more than human level intelligence. In the Transcend you have singularities and godlike beings, and above that, who knows? There’s an ancient godlike evil known as the Blight lurking at the edge of the Transcend, the level where it’s possible to become a Power. Humans poking around wake it up and trigger a catastrophe. Their escaping ship, which might contain the seeds of the Blight’s destruction, rushes to the bottom of the Beyond, where it lands on a planet where the inhabitants, the Tines, are pack minds, at a medieval tech level. Meanwhile, Ravna, a human librarian at Relay, and Pham, a human rescued from the Slowness and patched together by a Power, start a rescue mission.

You could have lots of great stories set in the Beyond, with its solar systems full of uneasily co-existing alien civilizations. You could have stories set in the Slowness—Vinge later outdid himself with one, A Deepness in the Sky. You could have long series of books set on the Tines world, especially about first contact with them when humans get there. The interstellar newsgroups could themselves have sustained trilogies. What Vinge gives us of his universe is like what Tolkien says of Middle Earth, “an account... of its end and passing away before its beginning and middle had been told.” A Fire Upon the Deep is the story of an absolutely fascinating universe and of how it came to an end.

The book alternates between the big events happening in space and the small events happening on Tines World. It never fails to leave one story at a point where you want more of it, and never fails to be enthralling with the other story. There are two stories on the planet—Jefri and Johanna are separated and dealing with two entirely opposed groups of aliens. Tines World has nations and climates and history and philosophies, as well as fascinatingly bizarre aliens. And for those aliens, the human language, Samnorsk, and human history and technology as revealed by the child’s toy dataset they have from the human children, is new and universe changing, while we know that humans are trivially unimportant in the larger scale of things and that Samnorsk is a minor unimportant language. There’s a good cognitive dissonance with that.

Vinge does really well at making the wider universe seem real, even though we don’t see all that much of it. We have what Ravna takes for granted, and what she has to explain to Pham. We see the newsgroups and get to know some of the posters—like the Aphranti Hegemony (“Death to Vermin”) and Sandor at the Zoo. We see a little of Relay and a little of Harmonious Repose, but it’s surprising how much detail is evoked with so little. The Beyond feels solid, with its layers of translation and weird aliens—ones that walk on tusks, and ones like potted plants, and Twirlip of the Mists, who sounds demented but is always right.

He does a lot with evocative names and casually mentioned references that get nailed down by being referenced from different directions—for example the planet from which humanity emerged from the Slowness, Njora, is mentioned in the context of the fairy tale “Age of Princesses” several times by the kids on Tines World comparing the Tines tech, and there’s a reference to the fountain flowing on Straum to say humanity would never forget its origins, not to mention the Straumli forests with mechanical copies of Njoran wildlife, and then on the ship (the Out of Band II, great name) when Pham makes the illusion of a castle Ravna thinks that in the Age of Princesses the castles were in tropical swamps so they didn’t have fireplaces. That’s just one tiny thing, but everything is as well sourced as this, and all the information is delicately inclued, dropped in smoothly. The details build up a picture that’s consistent and interesting, and some of the details are major clues you can’t recognise the first time through.

I read A Fire Upon the Deep from the library pretty much as soon as it was published in 1992. I was already looking out for Vinge; I’d enjoyed The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime a few years before, though I was very impressed with how much better this was. I bought the Millennium paperback I now own as soon as it came out in 1993. So I’d read it at least twice before I got online in May 1994. The thing about that was that when I saw usenet, I immediately recognised it from Vinge’s “Net of a million lies.” I can’t thank Vinge enough for educating me in how usenet worked so that I could plunge right in and not make too much of a fool of myself. It’s weird that blogs, which didn’t come along until much later, work like the net in Ender’s Game, which I first read on New Year’s Day 1985.

A Fire Upon the Deep remains a favourite and a delight to re-read, absorbing even when I know exactly what’s coming. Deepness is a better novel, but A Fire Upon the Deep is more fun.

1. Triseult
I read Vinge a few years ago, and I got really turned off by "Fire Upon the Deep". Yes, the ideas are grand and amazing, but much like, say, Stephen Baxter, the writing is really childish and the characterization is terrible.

Likewise, the "Net of a million lies" really dates this novel... It shows how Vinge just copy-pasted Internet concepts from 1992, instead of trying to invent something of his own.

I appreciate that some people like Vinge's writing... I guess it's just really not my type.
Ian Tregillis
3. ITregillis
I just read A Fire Upon the Deep for the first time relatively recently. And I came away from it cursing myself for not having read it much, much sooner.

It's exactly the kind of thing that turned me into a science fiction lover in the first place. For me, anyway, it's an example of excellent science fiction. Yet I'm not sure I would use it to introduce other people to the genre-- I felt I was able to suss out some of the most amazing concepts in the book in part because I had at least a rough familiarity with the genre. But that could also be because I'm slow on the uptake sometimes...
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Trisault: Certainly he took the internet of the day and made it a galactic internet. But that's hardly copy-pasting, it's more what we usually call extrapolating! Also as I said, it's one tiny element of the book that is deeply original in so many ways. A book that did nothing but extrapolate the internet of 1992 would be very dull today, but that's so far from what aFUTD is that I can hardly believe we're talking about the same book.
Ian Tregillis
5. ITregillis
Jo @ 4 and Triseult @ 1

Early on in the book, when I first encountered the Net of a Million Lies, I (like everybody, I'm sure) immediately associated it with Usenet. Because (like everybody) I was hanging around on Usenet at the time this novel was written.

At first, that struck me as dated. But as I got further into the novel, I decided that the "usenety" feel wasn't a product of a lack of imagination or weak extrapolations on Vinge's part. I managed to convince myself the Usenet model made more sense in Vinge's galaxy than the World Wide Web model. But it's not like I understand how the Internet of the Beyond functions. (Which, because I live in the Slow Zone, is physically impossible anyway.)
Dru O'Higgins
6. bellman
I recently read this for the first time. I've been avoiding far, far future apres singularity books because so often they are badly written and it's impossible to connect to the characters. I picked this up on a whim for 55 cents and it was fabulous. I'm waiting for the library to get me the sequel, so please guys, no spoilers.
David Goldfarb
7. David_Goldfarb
I recently read an article in Science News about recalculating the mass of galaxies to take into account the dark matter surrounding them. The article said that dark matter was found in the halo surrounding a galaxy, and very little in the core. I at once thought of A Fire Upon the Deep; I wondered whether the dark matter was in fact composed of Massive Compact Halo Objects (one popular theory about what it is) and whether these objects were in fact anything like Vinge's Powers.
8. soru
'Twirlip of the Mists, who sounds demented but is always right.'

If this post doesn't get a comment from Graydon, something is broken in the intertubes.
Sandi Kallas
9. Sandikal
You're on a roll with reviews of some of my favorite books lately.
Marc Houle
10. MightyMarc
What I love about Vernor Vinge is that his aliens are so extremely well developed and thought-out. Plus the stories are smart. Both "A Deepness in the Sky" and "A Fire Upon the Deep" had me riveted until their ends.
Sean Pratz
11. Galoot
Having read science fiction since my early teens, and having access only to an underfunded school library at the time, I grew up on Golden Age SF. Asimov, mainly, with some Bradbury and Clarke and SFWA Hall of Fame in the mix. So, to me, that's what science fiction was, and the "new" stuff could go to hell.

I have no idea why I picked up Fire when it was published. It certainly wasn't because "Vinge" rhymed with "Heinlein" and I got confused. But I devoured that book, and Vinge dethroned all others as my favorite SF author, period. He's only gotten better. If only he'd write faster!

Thanks, Jo. You nailed it.
12. randwolf
So...Twirlip = Krugman? Or perhaps some more obscure DFH figure?
13. Nirgal
Godsdammit, my job is taking too much time away from reading. Where do I sign up for a job that will pay me to read? Anyway, adding this to the top of my list of books to read "right away".
14. nquixote
BRAVO! A Fire Upon the Deep is Teh Awesome.
15. nquixote
Jo - you should do a retrospective on David Brin's "Uplift" books! Fans of Vernor Vinge often enjoy those, and vice versa.
16. Foxessa
MightyMarc's comment goes for me too.
Julian Hall
17. Jules
Out of Band II, great name

When writing AFUTD, Vinge was, one presumes, familiar with the details of TCP, one of the core protocols of the Internet. TCP has a little-used feature that allows important messages to be delivered quickly, without waiting for messages sent before them to arrive and be processed at their destination. Such messages are called out-of-band messages. I assume this is the inspiration for this name.
Chris Meadows
18. Robotech_Master
A Fire Upon the Deep was, literally, the first e-book I ever bought. From Peanut Press way back in '97 when I got my first PDA (a Palm IIIe). Even though it took up about 2/5 of the IIIe's un-expandable memory just to read it.

(I already had read it, of course, in paperback. But I loved it so much that the utility of having a version of it I could slip into a shirt pocket, as opposed to having to carry around in a backpack for want of any pants-pocket big enough, sold me right away.)

Incidentally, I'm a little surprised nobody has mentioned that an "annotated" version of Fire is available in e-book form. (I wrote a lengthy review of it on Slashdot.) The interesting thing about it is that to call it "annotated" is really a misnomer; it's actually a version that has Vinge's sometimes cryptic, often fascinating authors' notes stuck into it.

Things like notes on how Vinge intentionally jiggered the universe concept so that the idea of a galactic Usenet would work ("Somewhere should make clear to the undiscerning reader that we can't have gosh-wow 1990 LAN stuff on the Known Net because of bandwidth and transmission delay problems," reads note 1160) and orbital calculations to determine how far out and how big a given moon has to be in order to shed a particular amount of light with a given orbital period. The annotations break up the text to the point where it's a little hard to read—but given the nature of most of the notes, it will be most interesting to people who already have read it and now want to go back and see how it was put together.

There are also some "cut scenes" that went by the wayside, including one that would have linked it more closely back to the short story that originally introduced the Tines and Zones concept, "The Blabber". ("The Blabber"—available in one of Vinge's short story collections—is itself a fascinating read, as it gives a glimpse at a sort of "prototype" version of the Fire story in which Jefri and Pham are a combined character.) Fortunately, Vinge was not bothered about tossing "The Blabber" out of continuity on its ear when better story ideas presented themselves for the novel.

The annotated version was originally put together for a Hugo/Nebula CDROM back in the early '90s, when interactivity and hypertext was the big new gosh-wow gimmick, and Vinge has left in the annoted edition the foreword he originally wrote, in which he opined that hypertextual branching fiction was going to be the wave of the future. Just goes to show that even the best prognosticators can get it wrong; that particular future has never quite happened, and probably won't.
19. brightcrow
It's still on my to-read list, but it seems as if the OP believes that SF needs to be predictive. I'd like to emphasize that SFnal ideas need not be proven true nor unique.
20. brightcrow
Correction: I'm responding to the first commenter, Triseult, not the OP.
Christopher Davis
21. ckd
Jo, I have a hard time believing that you weren't online before May 1994; I certainly thought you predated the AOL Endless September of 1993....
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
CKD: Nope. May of 1994. I remember it distinctly -- making long distance phone calls where I had to pay for every second of online time, 2400 modem, only being able to afford to download rasfw at weekends... ah, good times. Having said that, I don't go along with the allegation upthread that the net is broken.
23. sf_fangirl
I read this about 6 years ago. I remember the Tines as really unique aliens. I rember the zones of thought vaguely and that I thought it was kind of dumb. I rember nothing else really. You talk about "escaping ship" and "seeds of the Blight's destruction". I rember nothing of that. I do rember not being overly impressed and deciding not to read A Deepness in the Sky because of it.
Bruce Cohen
24. SpeakerToManagers
I spent most of the 80's and early 90's on usenet, and read all of Vinge's available fiction in that period too, so when AFUTD appeared I immediately grabbed it. The usenet experience made the "Net of a Million Lies" familiar, and I spent a good amount of time while reading the book trying to figure out if he'd based any of the net characters on real usenet posters. I only identified one for sure, Sandor at the Zoo, and was pretty sure that Twirlip was someone I should recognize, but wasn't sure who. I asked Vinge about them in an email exchange once, but he avoided answering that question, rather coyly, I thought.

It's one of my favorite books; I've reread it several times, most recently just a few months ago after the discussion here about the tragic aspects of Pham's life brought home to me how much of the plot I'd forgotten.

So I'm strongly with Jo on this one; it's a great book, written with skill, vision, and heart.
25. Foxessa
The unknown zone seems to have planted the idea that Vinge was among those who originally developed the ARPnet way back in the day. Is this true?

I do quibble with Deepness in the Sky -- there's an unendurably long section that does not advance the plot or reveal character in the human crewed space ship that really should have been jettisoned to save fuel for acceleration, tension and so on.

But I do admire both books enormously. And enjoyed them so much.
Clark Myers
26. ClarkEMyers
#25 - Better to say that True Names ranks with a Logic Named Joe as developing the ideas when written.
27. Rob Davies
Great review. A Fire Upon the Deep is my favorite book by Vinge. Deepness in the Sky is a great read, too.
Michael Roberts
28. Michael
A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the few books I own that I've had to tape together because it's gotten ragged from rereading. Definitely one of my personal top ten or twenty. It always goes in the special box when we move.
Peter D. Tillman
29. PeteTillman
Jo, great review of a great book.

For the doubter, if he's still about:

"We're not into science fiction because it's *good literature*,
we're into it because it's *weird*"
--Bruce Sterling

Pete Tillman
I live in a country which had a failed coup d'etat over a guy getting a blow-job. It's really hard to stop laughing at this. -- Bruce Sterling (hard to stop with just one....)
Walter Underwood
30. wunder
I disagree about "outdid himself" with A Deepness in the Sky. Halfway through, I thought "mind-control Nazis again? Bleah." I should have stopped there. Pretty tired of totalitarian mind-control regimes. Just too easy.

A Fire Upon the Deep was OK. A Deepness in the Sky was somewhere below OK.

I really hadn't read Vinge since True Names, and maybe I should have stopped there.
Rammy Meyerowitz
31. m5rammy
This book is awesome. Some of the ideas in it will come to me at odd (but apropos) times. I definitely recommend this, and other Vinge books.
32. Petar Belic
A Fire Upon the Deep is one of my favourite SF books. It sparkles with invention, adventure and character. Vinge's playfulness is evident at all times. It was like a light in the darkness that SF had become - saying 'this is how it's done'. In communication with Vinge many years ago I mildly berated him for not writing faster. His response was reasonable and telling. To paraphrase, he wondered if increasing his rate of production would not impact on his quality. The wise nod their head mutely. Nothing more need be said.
33. ScrewBot
It's terrible. Really.
And some people regard this as "hard scifi"?! Oh come on.
Cherryh's Alliance-Union novels are hard scfi.
Fire Upon the Deep is not hard scifi. It's a superficial science fantasy for young teens.
What I disliked most about this novel is that the threat to the entire galaxy is put on hold while we are told about some trivial politics on a backwater planet that goes on for page after boring page. Earlier, three interstellar civilisations are destroyed and dismissed in one sentence, with no details provided at all. Snap! They're gone. Then we look at insignificant events through a microscope for hundreds of pages. Why? It's not interesting. Where did the galactic drama go? It's like Vinge changed his mind and decided to write about something else instead.

You know, once I thought that winning a Hugo was an indication of quality. That it meant fine writing and imaginative ideas. I stand corrected. A Hugo award means nothing.

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