July 17, 2005
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
A Fire Upon the Deep is a careful meditation on the idea of intelligence and the varying power it can yield based purely on varying substrates and different implementations. It is an examination of the impact of technology on augmenting the intelligence of a species. In explaining this idea, Vinge coined a term: The Singularity. It is loosely defined as the instant beyond which the species changes so radically due to augmentation by its technology that any attempts to predict the future beyond that point is impossible.
Vernor Vinge has written about the Singularity in other works such as "Marooned in Realtime" and "The Peace War". Vernor Vinge's academic paper on the notion of Singularity explores this idea on a more literal level than is available in his fiction.
**many spoilers below**
Like many space opera novels, Vinge needs to invent a method for superluminal travel. He uses an ingenious device where the laws of physics change drastically in the various regions of the galaxy. On the rim of the galaxy is the Slow Zone (in the neighbourhood of our Solar System) where faster than light travel is impossible and there are inherent limits to machine and biological sentience. Closer to the galactic center is The Unthinking Depths where any kind of automation or sentience is impossible. Above the galactic plane in a vast space is the Beyond. Here is where FTL travel is possible and sentience can accumulate to become great Powers.
Humans have successfully managed to get a foothold in the Beyond, but they are relative newcomers in a crowded field of transcendent species and sentient machines that are so powerful that they are considered to to have god-like Powers. One group of human scientists from Sjandra Kei have founded a lab called the Straumli Realm to investigate an archeological dig of great significance.
The human inhabitants of Sjandra Kei and Straumli Realm are brown-skinned and are organized as a matriarchy. Apart from their Scandinavian-sounding names and the name of their language, Samnorsk, they could be from any matrilineal society, like for instance the one in Kerala, India.
They attempt to awaken from an ancient data library the remnants of a once-great Power. Things go wrong quickly, and they discover that they have awakened a Blight, a sentience of such great potential for dominance of all others that it could affect the entire Beyond.
A few humans survive the Blight and escape the Lab only to crash onto a backwater planet near the edge of the Beyond where the only sentient inhabitants have only medieval levels of technology and a brutal feudal political system in place. The aliens in this world, ultimately called the Tines, are one of the best realized aliens ever created in science-fiction. They resemble packs of wolves but look vaguely rat-like. Each member of the pack has a low-frequency purring noise which coordinates the pack and creates a sentient group-mind in the entire pack. Upto six members of the pack act as one. (Incidentally, as a measure of Vinge's attention to detail: The Tines also have a base-four notation.)
Only two humans survive the landing on the planet: fourteen year old Johanna Olsndot and her eight year old brother Jefri. Johanna ends up with the Woodcarver nation while Jefri is trapped in the Flenser empire (run by Steel, a thinly disguised version of Stalin), each unaware of the others survival. The cold war between these two nations heats up because of the injection of space-age technology.
The pack-minds of the Tines not only give a feeling of a completely alien sentience, but also serve to illustrate the transcendence possible even with simple technology: the defining moment of the book.
Meanwhile, the Blight rages on in the High Beyond and it seems as if the only solution to the Blight is in the crashed spaceship on the Tines world. A rescue mission is mounted by the Relay. The Relay is the corporation which provides the physical layer for the Beyond communication network. Due to the vast distances, the messages are mostly text and Vinge uses this to create a far-future parody of the contemporary nntp netnews system, where alien civilizations flame each other via series of automatic translations.
The Relay assigns the sole human under their employ: Ravna Bergsndot and a couple of mercenary Skroderiders, another species who have passed the Singularity due to the incorporation of technology. Skrodes are sentient frond-like plants who have been merged with an artificial means of transport by a benevolent alien species called Riders. The fourth member of their team is Pham Nuwen, who is a human that appears to have been created by a Power interested in stopping the Blight.
This unlikely team has to rescue the two humans and extract the solution to the Blight which is rumored to be on the spaceship stranded on the Tines world.
As you can see from even the simplest of plot summaries, this book is dense and richly rewarding. You might have to read it twice to appreciate its detailed construction.
There is one small continuity error in the plot: one of the characters stranded on the Tines world, Johanna picks the name Tines in her language to describe her saviors/captors. In the next chapter, the other human also trapped on the same planet but with a different group altogether uses the term Tines as well. It's a subtle mistake, of course.
In 1999, Vernor Vinge published a prequel to this book (the return of Pham Nuwen!) called "A Deepness in the Sky" set 10,000 years before the events in this book. Like this book, it also won the Hugo award for best novel.
%T A Fire Upon the Deep %A Vernor Vinge %I New York: Tom Doherty Associates %D 1992 %G ISBN: 0312851820 (hc) %P 391 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2001/05/21Posted by anoop at July 17, 2005 01:40 PM