In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Sometimes a book comes along that completely knocks you off your feet. A perfect example is A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. It takes all the tropes of space opera, but grounds them in interesting speculations about physics. It is a war story, but told from the viewpoint of refugees fleeing that conflict. It is a heroic quest, but set in a far future society that travels between stars. It pushes all the emotional buttons, and keeps you on the edge of your seat right up to the last page. If you haven’t read it, consider this article a taste of what you’ve been missing. If you have read it, join me for a fond visit to an old favorite. There are a few spoilers ahead, but relatively gentle ones that describe the setting without revealing the plot past the first few chapters.
It’s often said, in a statement attributed to science fiction fan Peter Graham, that the golden age of science fiction is 12. The concept is easy to understand: the real golden age is not a period in time, but a period in life. At a young age, your sense of wonder has not been beaten into submission; you don’t have hundreds of books to measure the latest one against. Pretty much everything you read is something fresh. But every once in a while, a book comes along that gives even an older reader a thrill that compares with their first exposure to science fiction. I was in my late thirties when I encountered A Fire Upon the Deep, but for a few days, I felt like I was 12 again. This book had thoughtful extrapolation, thrilling adventure, fascinating aliens, fearsome opponents, and compelling protagonists. It’s no wonder it won the Hugo Award, science fiction’s highest popular award, the year after it appeared.
About The Author
Vernor Vinge was born in 1944. In 1966 the young author sold his first science fiction story to John Campbell at Analog magazine, and he was a frequent contributor to magazines throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. I remember his work as being satisfying, but more thoughtful than emotional. His “day job” while he wrote science fiction was in computer science, and he is now retired from a position as a San Diego State University Professor of Mathematics. His academic career informed his science fiction writing, and vice versa. One of Vinge’s notable works is a novelette from 1981, “True Names,” widely noted as a precursor to novels that use “cyberspace” as a setting. He is famous for an essay written in 1993, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which is summarized in the following statement: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” Vinge believes that this development will so transform society that stories from after the “singularity” would be incomprehensible to those living before the transformation.
This essay was not the first time he addressed this concept—his 1986 novel, Marooned in Realtime, describes characters who were trapped in a stasis field during the “singularity” and found themselves emerging into another world. But Vinge found he had a tiger by the tale: his own best guesses for the future envision a world that would defy description. His solution to this dilemma was the developing a concept he called “The Zones of Thought.”
The Zones of Thought
My first encounter with the “Zones of Thought” concept was not A Fire Upon the Deep, published in 1992. Instead, it was a novelette, “The Blabber,” which appeared in New Destinies, Volume VI, the Winter 1988 edition. New Destinies was a magazine in paperback book format edited by Jim Baen and published by Baen Books (while he went from being a magazine editor to a book publisher, I don’t think Baen ever left his magazine roots behind). “The Blabber” describes a human colony world settled by emigrants from the American Great Lakes region. Both Earth and this new colony are located in the “Slow Zone,” a region where travel and communications are limited to the speed of light, and superhuman intelligence is impossible. Beneath this region, in the “Unthinking Depths,” even human-level intelligence is impossible (so much for the galactic core being the realm of elder races with advanced science). The fringes of the galaxy are the “Beyond,” where the speed of light is no longer a limiting factor, and superhuman beings and intelligences live.
In “The Blabber,” the human colony, located just within the Slow Zone, is visited by a trading expedition from the Beyond, looking to trade advanced technology for cultural artifacts from the humans. The story is a bravura effort, mixing thoughtful scientific extrapolation with wonders that would be right at home in the space opera tales of science fiction’s pulp era. Vinge found a way to escape the bounds of rigid extrapolation, but in a way that was internally consistent. There is a joy and sense of wonder in “The Blabber” that I had not seen in Vinge’s work before. So when I heard that A Fire Upon the Deep would be set in that same universe, I looked forward to it with great anticipation. Anticipation that was rewarded in abundance.
A Fire Upon the Deep opens with a description of an expedition from the human Straumli Realm to a long-lost archive just beyond the Beyond. In their attempt to gain information that could make their entire culture wealthy, the expedition instead uncovers an ancient evil, a malignant artificial intelligence that threatened the galaxy’s civilization in the distant past. Realizing what they have unleashed, the expedition attempts to flee in two spaceships. One is destroyed, while the other—carrying both the children of the expedition in suspended animation and also a secret that might lead to the undoing of the malignant intelligence—flees toward the Slow Zone looking for a habitable planet. The Olsndot family, piloting that ship, land on an unknown world, only to be attacked by its inhabitants, and only the young siblings Johanna and Jefri Olsndot survive, along with some of the children in suspended animation. They also end up separated, in the hands of two warring factions among the alien inhabitants.
The inhabitants of this world, the Tines, are a species that communicates between its members by sound, and only in groups of 5-8 do these aliens reach human level intelligence. They are described as having a mix of dog and sea mammal characteristics, but because of their black and white coloration, affinity for traveling in groups, and their complex system of communication, they remind me of dolphins in the northern Pacific, colored like killer whales in black and white, who gather in groups to play on the bow waves of passing ships. Jefri is accidently placed with Amdi, a newly formed Tine pack, while Johanna falls in the hands of pair of traveling Tine packs, Peregrine and Scriber, who bring her to the area ruled by the Tine Woodcarver. Jefri forms a friendly bond with his captors, not realizing that their leader, Steel, heads a Nazi-like sect that practices eugenics in building their packs. At the same time, Johanna forms an adversarial relationship with the Tines around her, not realizing that they are a much more democratic and benevolent society. The children are on two sides of an impending war, with their ship and its treasures greatly coveted by both factions.
At the same time, on a world in the Beyond called Relay, a human librarian named Ravna Bergsndot has won an apprenticeship with the Vrimini Organization (in the information-based society of the Beyond, the role of a librarian is extremely expansive and complex). Relay is a major node in the galaxy-wide communications system called the Known Net, and her posting is an exciting step in her career. News of the malevolent intelligence released by the Straumli Realm explorers is beginning to spread, and it gains the nickname of the “Blight.” She meets a man named Pham Nuwen, who was resurrected from a crew member (the original Pham Nuwen) of a Slow Zone spaceship owned by the Qeng Ho trading organization. Ravna is a fan of old fairy tales, and Pham appears to her like a hero from the old tales brought back to life. He is the representative of a transcendent being known as the “Old One.” After a date, however, she finds that Pham is being used as kind of a human net terminal, allowing her to actually communicate directly with the Old One, a disconcerting experience.
The Vrimini Org receives a distress call from Jefri Olsndot and realizes that a countermeasure to the Blight might be aboard his crashed starship. Vrimini Org commissions a rescue expedition, hiring two Skrodriders, Blueshell and Greenstalk, and their cargo ship, the Out of Band II. Skrodriders are intelligent plants who have a symbiotic relationship with the mechanical carts that they ride, a relationship that has existed for uncounted millennia. While they are preparing the expedition, the Blight attacks Relay and destroys the Old One, while the Out of Band II, with Ravna, Pham, Blueshell and Greenstalk aboard, barely escapes the tragedy. They decided to attempt to carry out their commission, despite the fact that Vrimini Org may no longer exist.
As the Out of Band II travels to their rescue, Jefri and Johanna learn to cope with an alien world, learning more about the Tines and their culture. At the same time, Tine society is heading toward war, and the Woodcarver organization is riddled with spies and traitors. Steel is manipulating Jefri, planning to capture the rescue mission and use it to his advantage. From the Known Net comes news that whole civilizations are being absorbed into the Blight, and the galaxy explodes with warfare. Alien civilizations, knowing that it was humans who unleashed the Blight, head toward human worlds intent on genocide. The crew of the Out of Band II, pursued by hostile forces, finds that it will be difficult even to reach their destination, let alone aid the children and release the countermeasure.
A bald summary of the plot of A Fire Upon the Deep is doomed to be as inadequate as an attempt by a human to describe a transcendent being. The story is, at its heart, an epic fantasy quest, but with energy weapons instead of swords. There is a surface level of action, adventure, and derring-do, but at the same time, there is some fascinating world-building going on. The Tines are unique, fascinating, and the implications of their pack intelligences are not only well thought out, but vital to the plot. The different Tine characters feel real despite their alien nature, and the way their personalities change as members are added and subtracted from their packs is fascinating. The alien nature of the Skrodriders is also compelling and consistent. The Known Net feels a lot like the Internet, which is an accomplishment, because when the book was written, the Internet had not quite reached its current ubiquitous state. Ravna is a plucky and resourceful heroine. Pham Nuwen is compelling and tragic at the same time, a human being manufactured to serve as a tool. And the child characters of Jefri and Johanna are well written and their behavior feels consistent with their ages. This is a book that makes you think and feel deeply at the same time; most of all, it’s a book you can enjoy on many different levels.
Vernor Vinge received the Hugo Award for A Fire Upon the Deep (tying with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book), and it marked the start of a very productive period in his career. In 1999, he published A Deepness in the Sky, another Hugo winner, a prequel that describes an earlier adventure of Pham Nuwen in his days with the Qeng Ho, making contact with a spider-like alien race. A third novel in the Zones of Thought series, Children of the Sky, was released in 2011, and follows the adventures of Ravna, the Olsndot children, and the other children revived from hibernation, as they work to establish a new human civilization among the Tines. The scope of this story is not as epic, but it’s a good opportunity to visit some old familiar characters. Vinge has written a number of other books and stories, and won further Hugo Awards, most recently for the book Rainbows End—most of these are set in the near future, and address the impact of technology on society. Unfortunately for his many fans, though, Vinge is not as prolific a writer as some of us would like.
The Zones of Thought series, short though it is, contains some of the most compelling science fiction stories ever written. “The Blabber,” while it was the first tale to be written, is described by Vinge as the last in the series chronologically (you can find it, by the way, in the anthology The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge). The story feels more like a beginning than an ending, though, and if we are lucky, we might see further tales of humans, Tines, and Skrodriders set in a Beyond full of strange beings, mysterious worlds, and thrilling dangers.
For now, I’m interested in your thoughts. Which of Vinge’s works have you read? What are your favorites? What do you think of the Zones of Thought concept? Do you find the Tines a believable species? And would you, like me, want to read more?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for five decades, especially science fiction that deals with military matters, exploration and adventure. He is also a retired reserve officer with a background in military history and strategy