A Fire Upon the Deep

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge.

Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon the Deep

I’ve been pretty tardy getting around to this lauded novel from the early 1990s, despite my efforts in recent years to “get current” with respect to science fiction. (My Other Reader read it in 2005.) This doorstop space opera is full of great ideas, not the least of which are the premises of “zonology” and “applied theology.” According to the first of these, important sf technologies such as faster-than-light travel and superhuman artificial intelligences are only possible in the outer reaches of the galactic volume. The second is concerned with “Powers,” i.e. the results of sapient races transcending into relative omnipotence from advanced positions in the outer zone of the Beyond.

Zonological conditions facilitate a galaxy-spanning communications network, and the novel updates the larger context with bulletins in the form of news posts to this network. At that scale, the story concerns the awakening of a malefic power (the Blight), and the ensuing wars and persecutions. Humans are peripheral at best to the larger galactic polity, but because it was humans who unleashed the Blight, they are rather central to this episode.

A parallel plot concerns a backwater “medieval” world populated by pack sophonts: dog-like creatures that maintain their human-or-greater intelligence on the basis of four or more acoustically-interlinked pack members, who are each of merely high animal intelligence, without reflective consciousness. Humans fleeing the initial outbreak of the Blight chance to crash on the world of these creatures, and there is a contest among the natives for possession of the human technology that the pack factions hope to use in their ongoing rivalries and intrigues.

Ultimately, these plots converge because the crashed ship houses the “countermeasure” usable to defeat the Blight. The end of the book has very little to offer in the way of revelations or surprises, but it does provide reasonably satisfying closure to the long story. The plot is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book, while characters (particularly various non-human sophonts) are better realized, and most significant of all are the inventive concepts informing the space opera setting.

While far less imposingly styled (and commensurately more accessible) than M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books, I felt like this earlier work had a similar grasp of the ultimately contingent quality of human culture and consciousness, even if we should transcend our solar system. Vinge has since written two more books in this fictional universe, and I will probably read them someday, but I feel no urgency about tracking them down. This one has taken a big chunk of my reading bandwidth lately! [via]