Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vernor Vinge - A Fire Upon the Deep

Vernor Vinge’s 1992 Hugo Award winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep opens as follows: How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails. (p. 1) From those sentences on, the novel’s one of tremendous scale, a playful book full of adventure and heart that is, one can never forget, a behemoth of nigh unimaginable proportions, a colossus as awe inspiring as the star-studded night sky it takes place in the depths of.

The idea central to the book is that there are Zones of Thought, that the galaxy and its physics are not uniform entities but are rather stratified by areas of different potential complexities and even natural laws. From the Slowness towards the galaxy’s core, where the Earth of our present lies entombed and where sophonts can only crawl across the stars, to the Beyond, a realm like the majority of our Science Fiction and filled with mingling races and faster than light travel, all the way to the Transcend, the place where the restraints of reality are so lax that those who’ve reached it become as Gods, impossible for us to conceive and capable of almost any feat. It’s an interesting set up, and Vinge is an author skilled enough, and a dreamer daring enough, to not shy from its complexities but rather to search out its implications.

So many authors of Science Fiction (and Fantasy) seem determined to attain the grandeur of celestial timescales and zeroes after their dates without either the ability or willingness to actually give that history life. Needless to say, that’s not at all the case here. Rather than give the Transcendent the easy gravity of immortality, Vinge delves deeper, into something simpler, stranger, and, once considered, infinitely more awesome. The Transcendent are so much greater than we are, and their conceptions of time and reality so different, that it’s rare they stay communicative for more than five or ten years. They lost interest, or grew into something different – or [they] really did die. (p. 72)  Instead of a being eternally humanoid, they're brief, ephemeral, and infinitely vaster in that short span of time.

But it’s not just as the very top of his delectable and speculative layer cake that Vinge has imbued with life. Though the Zones themselves seem permanent, and though the evolution of life from Slowness to Beyond and even Transcendence if the race proves capable is well established, the actual details of Vinge’s world are ever in flux. Faced with the vastness of space and time, with the prospects of further advancement into the Transcend or the dangers of their neighbors, entire races frequently perish or ascend. As Vinge says, civilizations were transient and races faded… (p. 307) At one point, when faced with a beach so odd and beautiful that it might be unique, we’re told that, considering the immensity of space and the uncountable races that inhabit it and inhabited it, saying that something is unique is an extreme thing to say about anything in the Beyond. (p. 166) I can think of several excellent examples of Science Fiction concepts so excellent that they defined entire imagined cosmos in their tales’ reality and their readers’ imagination, but here is something different, an eminence of eternal change and possibility vaster than any one idea, no matter how strong.

To my puzzlement, Vinge's treatment of information seems often accused of being outdated and/or hopelessly retro. That’s bizarre to me. It’s true that the internet here is mostly composed of simple text based messages, just about identical to the emails of today, but the face of the thing’s irrelevant next to the structure and mindset of it, and there Vinge excels. His is a future concerned, above all else, with information, and it’s the pursuit of information that shapes its structure and its masters, that drives the very economy of the Beyond.

Of course, we don’t know all this at the novel’s beginning, and, fear not, despite the brilliance of the world building, A Fire Upon the Deep is anything but a slow or self-indulgently expository novel. In fact, the broad outlines of the plot are just about as standard as you can get. In the prologue, bumbling human explorers stumble upon an archive containing an ancient entity more powerful, and more malevolent, than they can imagine. I probably won’t be shocking anyone when I say that it escapes and that it starts wreaking havoc. Sequestered for so long in the archive with the perversion, though, was what just might be some means of combating it, and that means ends up marooned after a shipwreck on a medieval-level world populated by pack intelligences with the last two child survivors of the researcher’s last escape ship. Alternating with the children’s perspectives and those of the world’s natives is that of Ravna, a human woman from up in the Beyond who is at first key to monitoring, and then to trying to rescue, the trapped children and their cargo. The fun of it all is further accented by all manner of gleeful ingredients, from the amateur spy who reassures his companions by saying “Hey, don’t worry. I’ve read all about doing this sort of thing!” (p. 31), to Vinge’s pulpish habit of underlining entire sentences for emphasis, to his constant playing and subverting (or even simply subsuming) the tropes of the most excitable adventure stories, as when Ravna realizes upon meeting one particularly larger than life character that after a lifetime of reading romantic fiction, she’d run into her first hero. (p. 89)

Crucially, though, Vinge somehow manages to never cross the line between fast paced fun and shallow or thin tales with nothing to offer besides the whittling away of time. The key to that is, rather unsurprisingly, the depth and brevity of his world and its constant and mind-expanding games of scale. Both of those make themselves felt constantly and naturally through the most innocuous details or statements, like one character’s casual mention of “nonlinear reading” (p. 281) or another man of this far future’s saying that half-assed programming was a time-filler that, like knitting, must date back to the beginning of the human experience. (p. 487)

Another vital component of it all is the way that Vinge is able to suggest and even dive into genuinely alien minds. Chiefly on display are two creations, the pack based and technologically primitive Tines and the two Skroderiders that accompany Ravna on her mission to the Tines’ world. Of those two, it’s the Tines that fascinated me most, creatures whose very consciousness was the product of multiple distinct and independently sentient parts. Vinge explores the concept in all sorts of interesting ways with Flenser and Steel, Tines that have become a cross of megalomaniacal dictators and mad scientists, experimenting on their brethren and themselves to discover just what makes them them and just how a pack could be artificially created. Despite their profound strangeness, however, the Tines are relatable in their way, emotional, sympathetic, and even at times understandable. As one of the children with them observes of one of their conversations, the ideas were so alien, and yet the overtones of affection and humor were somehow very familiar. (p. 293)

It doesn’t hurt that the Tines’ world is so fascinating. It may be only a part of the whole, but Vinge, like China Miéville, has the unique ability to make his every throw away idea incredibly fascinating and his every sub plot seem fertile enough for a series. I, at least, know I’d gladly have read, loved, and considered great a Fantasy novel containing nothing but a smaller scale version of the Tines portion of this text. Their world has numerous interesting factions and characters, unexplored yet tempting horizons, is everywhere rich with the implications, from architecture to art, of a pack mind species. The fantasy plotline that takes place there reminded me a great deal of K.J. Parker’s Engineer trilogy with its focus on technology and the changes that it leads to, but here, of course, the characters have a cheat sheet, the two sides both struggling to invent from scratch the weapons and items that they know exist, leading to a world and a confrontation within it marked by huge gaps and leaps in ability and technology.

As enjoyable as the plot is, it still does seem small at first when glimpsed against the entirety of the Zones and the uncountable races that reside there. In fact, many sophonts take exactly that position in the first half or so of the novel, saying that there have always been such galactic catastrophes and that, really, it’s no big deal for any except those that get caught in them. The fact that the perversion then proves a danger to not just humanity and those near it but to all the Beyond serves to raise the stakes and immensity of the threat to critical levels, but does still leaves the individual seeming hopelessly outmatched as entire civilizations fall and die on the periphery, their fates only obliquely revealed through the shifting views of the Net.

Even that’s barely touching on the incredible effects of living near the Transcendent, knowing that there are beings infinitely superior to you, infinitely above you, capable – and, now, willing – to use sophonts as but their playthings. We’re all, as one character says, nothing but “happy automatons, running on trivial programs. […] [The Transcendent] could make devices like you and I.” (pp. 255-6) But the cast as a whole is not given into such fatalism. No, the message here is one of defiance and action, no matter how fleeting or seemingly hopeless, how short lived or even doomed. Our perspective in the prologue says it first: While we exist, when we exist, we should do what we can, (p. 3) but I think my favorite iteration of the sentiment comes later, when one of the novel’s most audacious, but ultimately weaker, characters says that he “will not be flotsam on the wave of the future.” (p. 450) (All of which is similar to another of Parker’s themes, the one best summed up by Basso’s declaration that Destiny is the enemy. (p. 203, The Folding Knife))

Despite all that, though, Vinge’s characters, and even his plots, are well overshadowed by his ideas. The excellence of each and every one of his humanoid and alien creations comes from their reactions and actions in their extraordinary and inventive situations, and the joys of his flashy plotting come from the way that it interacts with his cosmos. So, once just about all’s explained and understood, or at least as much as it ever will be in the novel’s pages (or ever could be by our Slow Zone minds?), a bit of the excitement leaves the affair, and the broad strokes of the novel’s ending aren’t too surprising, even if the particulars might be. Tied into that is the fact that we only get to viscerally feel the aspects of the climax that take place on the Tines world, a shame because it’s in terms of the larger galaxy that the unexpected aspects of the ending really hit. But, for all that, the ending’s still a damn fine one, a shade disappointing only for being merely very good at the end of such an exquisite work.

A Fire Upon the Deep is the epitome of what so much Science Fiction is trying to be, a gripping and exciting book filled to bursting and over the rim with interesting ideas that stretch out your mind, fill your head with wonder, and make you contemplate something profoundly other and infinitely vast. Here, at the tail end of this panegyric, I still feel like I may have understated just how much this novel hit me and just how much I liked it. So let me have one more sentence-length shot at conveying how I feel about it: A Fire Upon the Deep is absolutely brilliant. Now go read the book.


  1. It was definitely an excellent read. Now go read A Deepness in the Sky.

  2. Oh man oh man oh man! Wonderful review - I skimmed parts as I don't wanna spoil the read for myself - which makes FIRE sound *precisely* like the kind of meaty SF I dearly love - HYPERION, PLAYER OF GAMES, QUEEN OF ANGELS, DISPOSSESSED, SCHISMATRIX. I simply must procure a copy posthaste! Thanks again.

  3. Just finished this. Came highly recommended but I was disappointed. Dull and a bit ridiculous.

  4. Especially the talking trees on wheels!!!