A Fire Upon the Deep, Revisited

This image actually makes perfect sense if you've read the book. Unlike any of the professionally painted book covers I could find.

(This is an AI-generated image linked in a reddit thread talking about generating this image using AI, so I don’t feel too guilty using it.)

I recently discovered I had collected a lot of credits in the audiobook service I subscribe to and for lack of a better option grabbed a bunch of SF novels I had read and loved twenty or more years ago to see what I thought of them now. (In some cases, they were books by authors I loved which I may not have read). The second of these books I’ve listened to is A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge.

Vernor Vinge’s day job was teaching Computer Science at San Diego State, and it definitely shows in A Fire Upon the Deep. If you haven’t read it, and you like SF, it’s wonderful stuff. It doesn’t quite qualify as literature in my opinion—Vinge’s ability to render character is often weak, a common failing of SF writers—but where it comes to ideas and invention this book is right up there. If you love Iain Banks’s Culture universe, as I certainly do, this book seems to have pulled many assumptions from the same zeitgeist.

I won’t dwell on the book’s shortcomings. There’s a romantic subplot in the book that is utterly unconvincing and the major non-abstract villain (there’s an overarching villain in the story that isn’t really a character) is cartoonishly and ridiculously evil and has zero character development. The ending, as endings often are, combines forced tension with forced resolution. It has an ending, which is about as much as can be said for it.

But oh, the ideas…

The core idea of the background is the idea of galactic zones, apparently correlated with mass density, that determine how well complex systems (like intelligence and computers) are able to operate. Being relatively close to the galactic core puts you in the “slow” zone where intelligence is lacking and complex computer circuits and faster-than-light communication simply don’t work. The furthest reaches, of “beyond” are “transcendent” and there dwell the gods.

This is not just a superficially examined idea. First of all it’s not a fixed thing, and the boundaries experience “weather”. Next, there is travel and communication between zones. And the zones have their benefits and hazards. Humanity emerged from the slow zone some distant time past, and this may not have been its first emergence.

Written in 1992, like the early Culture novels, Deep is strongly influenced by the pre-Web Internet. Assume a galactic Net that is basically like the internet, but with wildly varying restrictions in speed and bandwidth of communication, Vinge-as-computer-scientist is right-at home exploring the wheels, cars, parking meters, traffic jams, and hub cab thieves of such a network. Some of his insights about trolling and misinformation are prescient. Others, like his assumption that a clearly visible truth will be self-evident and obliterate most malicious speculation now seem hopelessly naive.

I particularly like the network postings being affixed with a machine-translation route-path. As in, the series of translations needed to get from the original text to what you’re reading. Except of course the language you’re reading isn’t that language at all.

And there’s a race of plant-cyborgs that don’t really operate in human time-frames and have terrible problems with short-term memory (which is one reason they are cyborgs, the other being locomotion). And, yes, they’re fun.

Much of the action takes place on a planet in the Deep—the slow zone—where the dominant alien species on a planet is a dog-like species which operates in small packs that have a group—hive mind—consciousness built upon rapid “networked” audio communication. And again, this idea is deeply considered with all the parking meters and hubcaps.

The politics of the book are quite pathetically and parochially American. The book’s female characters are weaker even than the male. The most interesting possibilities of the alien politics among the hive-mind dogs are basically ignored. It’s by no means a perfect book. But the ideas are worth the visit, even if in the end it is not a tour de force like the Ancillary trilogy.