Sep 21 2011 11:30am

“All right, one quest. But never another!” Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

It’s not that I think A Fire Upon the Deep is perfect, it’s just that it’s got so much in it. There are lots of books that have fascinating universes, and there are lots of first contact novels, and there are lots of stories with alien civilizations and human civilizations and masses of history. The thing that makes A Fire Upon the Deep so great is that is has all these things and more, and it’s integrated into one thrilling story. It has the playful excitement and scope of pulp adventure together with the level of characterisation of a really good literary work, and lots of the best characters are aliens. It really is the book that has everything. Galaxy spanning civilizations! Thousands of kinds of aliens! Low bandwidth speculation across lightyears! Low tech development of a medieval planet! Female point of view characters! A universe where computation and FTL travel are physically different in different places! An ancient evil from before the dawn of time and a quest to defeat it! A librarian, a hero, two intelligent pot plants, a brother and sister lost among aliens, and a curious mind split between four bodies. And the stakes keep going up and up.

Vinge makes this complicated novel work by starting with the Blight, the threat at first to a lab full of human scientists at the edge of the Transcend, and then to the whole galaxy. We start close up and small with a freighter full of children escaping, and the threat of the Blight is always relentlessly there, throughout the rest of the book. Whenever a lesser writer would have a man come through the door with a gun, Vinge has the Blight destroy something big — or in one case, some aliens reacting to the Blight destroy something big. The universe is very complicated, and there are braided stories ratcheting along, but the shape of the story is very simple — the swelling threat of the Blight, the treasure at the bottom of the Beyond, the chase and pursuit.

He also keeps it focused down on the characters — Johanna and Jeffri Olnsdot on the planet of the Tines, the Tine Pilgrim with his four bodies, Ravna, the librarian from Sjandra Kei who is the only human working at Relay, and Pham Nuwen, the trader from the Slow Zone with pieces of a god in his head. And because there are two strands of story they drive each other forward — you never leave one strand without wanting more of it, and Vinge keeps up this balance all the way to the climax. Vinge sets us close in, and everything is so fascinating right from the start that it’s easy to get to really care.

This particular kind of fascination is almost unique to science fiction. There’s a universe and the way it works is really weird, and he keeps handing out pieces of it and you keep fitting it together. There are two real stories here, the children on the Tines World, and Ravna and Pham’s rescue attempt. The first has the tines themselves, with their minds and personalities spread across bodies. It also has the development of technology from “dataset” — a child’s computer with a portable web full of information. And there’s the way Samnorsk is this wonderful language of science and opportunity for the tines, and you can get whiplash seeing how it’s a backwater dead end language in the wider universe. In the second story, you have the wider universe with the zones. And there’s the low bandwidth “net of a million lies” where civilizations trade information that is sometimes incomprehensible. There’s the automation that degrades as you move downward. There are the skroderiders, and the tuskleg aliens and the jovians and the Powers that live in the Transcend. All the details build up and draw you in, so that by the end of the book when you come out gasping for breath it’s almost as if you have really been there.

But yet, this is a fight of good against evil, gods and lurking evil, it begins with the metaphor of the mummy’s tomb and ends with a transcendent victory. There’s something of the joy of fantasy in it too. Pham and the skroderiders are canny traders, wants to make a profit, only Ravna the librarian wants an adventure, a daring rescue, to save the universe. One quest, Blueshell agrees to, but never another! But this is an epic, after all, with the scale and scope and moral compass of an epic.

This is the first of the Vinge’s Zones of Thought series, and I’m re-reading it now in preparation for the new direct sequel, The Children of the Sky, due out in October. A Fire Upon the Deep finishes really well, but of course there’s plenty of space for more things to happen.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Foxessa
I too ....

You captured it with the use of "playful." That is what truly distinguishes this science fiction - space opera from the pack.

Love, C.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
Ooh! I just got a copy, and am now looking forward twice as much to reading it.
Ted Boone
4. tedboone
Pam: I envy you and your first reading of this book. It's soo good.
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter
A marvelous book. As Jo said, the tension between the various plot lines was really well done. Pretty much at every switch of strand I wanted to stay with the old one, but then quickly get caught in the new one--that is, of course, and old one from a couple strands back. Really well done.
lake sidey
6. lakesidey
Thanks for reminding me :o) I also need to re-read it (though I have time, I hardly think "Children of the Sky" will be available in my corner of the world for a while yet...)

7. narmitaj
I know I really liked it when I read it, but I am afraid I don't recall much of the plot details any more.

As a Brit, I do remember thinking "Blighters" an unfortunate term for the denizens of the Blight, blighters being scoundrels, bounders and cads of the Terry-Thomas and PG Wodehouse era in my mind.
8. Petar Belic

"...ends with a transcendent victory"

I disagree. I think I would call it a pyrrhic victory. The blight was slowed - dramatically - but the threat was still there, just perhaps hundreds of years away. Sure, higher automation and networking was destroyed by the zonometric changes, but the blight lived through it before and will again. Pham had to give up his life to effect this, and Ravna is left as the only adult in a land of dogs and human children - to me that's kind of lonely.

But it was awesome, I loved this book, and I'm really, really looking forward to the answer to some of these questions in around a month's time!
9. AlBrown
If you like the Zones of Thought books, don't forget Vinge's first foray into it, the novelette called "The Blabber," which, like "A Fire Upon the Deep" is one heck of a lot of fascinating universe building packed into a fast paced romp of an adventure story. It has appeared in some collections since first being published, and it is well worth the effort to look it up.
As a somewhat jaded old reader of science fiction, I don't look forward to many new books, but I can't wait for this one, a copy is already on order!
10. AlBrown
My last post, upon re-reading it, did not end very clearly. By "this one," I of course mean the latest book by Mr. Vinge, "The Children of the Sky."
See, I am so excited, I can't even express myself well!
Robert Evans
11. bobsandiego
Verner is a local for me and I saw him at a small con after I had read this book. I told him that the book had mad eme sick to my stomach -- cause I coudn't stop reading it on the bus, no matter my motion sickness.
It is truly a powerful book and an example of awsome talent
Susan Davis
12. sue
The book has aged very well (I'm rereading it, too), but it was absolutely perfect for its time if you were on Usenet back in the day. I came for the letter-perfect future Usenet, and stayed for the utterly fascinating universe that Vinge built. As much as I enjoyed A Deepness in the Sky, I've been looking forward to a proper sequel for twenty years, and I'm really looking forward to October 11.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
As far as Usenet goes, I read a A Fire Upon the Deep before I got online. Then I got online and... I had a Galaxy Quest moment. It was all real! I KNEW it!
14. Petar Belic
Ah... 'The Blabber'.

It felt to me like a sequel to AFutD, with obviously a lot going on in between!

Certainly, I read it like that initially, but there were also elements of the internal logic if it was connected directly to AFutD that didn't make sense.

Now I just pretend it's in a parallel universe. I'll have to read it again now, after TCotS.
15. a1ay
As a Brit, I do remember thinking "Blighters" an unfortunate term for
the denizens of the Blight, blighters being scoundrels, bounders and
cads of the Terry-Thomas and PG Wodehouse era in my mind.

See also the name of the antlike bad guys in "Ender's Game". Someone clearly had a word with Card because in the sequels he retconned it to "Formics".

And of course the Memorable book by Jack Vance that was hurriedly renamed "Servants of the Wanekh" after, again, someone had a word.
Iain Scott
16. iopgod
The usenet bits are certainly the bits I enjoy most!

Hexapodia is the key insight.
17. Dan Nexon
I want to make clear that I very much enjoyed both A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky (the latter, I think, is put together a bit better than the former). I've twice come close to assigning the former in my SF/Politics class. But I do have to say of the two books that: "if you've seen one collectivist bad guy, you've seen them all." Bonus: between the two of them you actually get three collectivist baddies as a result of Vinge's otherwise effective thematic mirroring of the micro-threat (amongst the Tines) and the macro-threat (the Blight).
Susan Davis
18. sue
Now that I think of it, CotS may be only partly the sequel I've been hoping for. There's certainly a nice story to follow on Tines' World, which is what CotS sounds like, but TW is now buried deep in the Slow Zone, just like the spider world in ADitS. I'd love to get another look at the Beyond and the Transcend at some point, and at the mystery of whatever super-Transcend thing was connected to Countermeasure.

Not that AFutD actually needed a sequel. It's one of my very favourite standalone SF novels, and it would have been just fine for it to stand by itself. ADitS stands by itself very nicely as well; if you didn't include the names "Pham Nuwen" or "Qeng Ho", there's nothing else tying it to AFutD. I'm a little annoyed, actually, that everything these days seems to try to be a series, and I'd love to see more standalone works see print.
19. Petar Belic
I think novels are better written when they stand alone. I think that's one of AFutD's strengths, as well as ADitS. Any extraneous reading is unnecessary, but a nice bonus. Writing a self contained novel enforces a certain discipline that series don't seem to do. Not that I don't like series!
Paul Eisenberg
20. HelmHammerhand
One of the great things about Vinge is that his novels, even when ostensibly part of a series, work just fine as standalones. That includes "The Peace War" and "Marooned in Realtime."
David Dyer-Bennet
21. dd-b
I've never tried unwrapping the two stories, and reading them separately. I have just skipped the Tine side of the book, though. While the Tines are brilliant creature-design, that side of the book is grim and depressing and I don't like it. And though the action there does affect the universe in the end, it feels disconnected to me when reading it; so it feels like unpleasant delay between me and the real story.

Unfortunately, looks like he's doing the sequel to the part I didn't like. This strongly suggests two Vinge books in a row that weren't about much I much cared about.
22. Jonellin StoneBreaker
@14- The Blabber is a sequel (of sorts)not to AFutD but to,"The Children of the Sky" , where Ravna & Tines have (re)gained high level spaceflight capacity. Without having yet read "The Children of the Sky", it will be interesting to see precisely who Hamid was to become. (Pham Nuwen perhaps?)

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