Review- Vinge, “A Fire Upon the Deep”

Vernor Vinge, “A Fire Upon the Deep” (1992) – Hard(ish) scifi space opera “goes to the dogs” in this one! Ha, ha, not figuratively, but in the sense two human children wind up in the clutches of rival factions of medieval dog-like pack-mind aliens. The action in “A Fire Upon the Deep” is split between Johanna and Jefri, last survivors of a human colony that gets eaten by a super-advanced malignant AI, and a crew of spacers hired by a human from the same society, Ravna, who goes looking for the ship they were on. The ship had to bail on dog-alien planet and, of course, also contains a way of defeating the Blight, as the evil AI is known.

This is a big (600 pages or so) book with a wide sweep. We go from hyper-advanced space colonies to dog-alien castles and encounter a number of interesting Vinge concepts along the way. Perhaps the most important are the “Zones of Thought.” As it turns out, Earth is in the Slow Zone- the closer to the galactic core you get, the slower the speed of light is, and in turn the slower do neurons fire and advanced tech becomes impossible even if it could be designed. The advanced space civilizations exist in the Beyond, where faster-than-light travel is possible, and the Transcend, inhabited by god-like energy beings. You have to be careful not to get caught in the “Slow Zone” nearer the galactic core, or in a zone storm, where your tech stops working. Vinge also tells us what the space internet looks like- a lot like usenet newsgroups from the nineties, an interesting take from the pre-social media days. The pack minds of the “Tines,” as the humans come to call the dog-aliens, are fleshed out, with gestalt personalities, telepathic communications (and confusions if packs get too close), and multi-generational layering. This is echoed in the shared mind of one of the human shipmates, who was reanimated by a Transcend god-thing that the Blight kills, and is left with some of the god’s abilities and personalities along with his reanimated baggage. Heady stuff! Vinge takes his time with all this, too, which turns out for the best even if it makes the book a little long and slightly confusing in some places.

Vinge sets up multiple ticking clocks, from the threat of the Blight, to the race between Ravna’s crew and the Blight’s fleet to seize the spaceship with the anti-Blight weapon, to the impending rumble between rival groups of Tine eugenicists (one mean, one less mean) that endangers the human children they’ve taken in. The clocks are always ticking but he still takes the time to throw in other complications: betrayals, horrifying discoveries about perfectly nice plant-people, the imperial ambitions of cute butterfly-aliens, the humans helping the Tines up the tech tree, etc. Vinge throws in a lot and most of it is good. One thing you don’t get a ton of is the libertarian posturing I’m told Vinge indulges in (he’s won the libertarian “Prometheus” scifi award multiple times), and that I can do without. All told, a decent, if perhaps overstuffed, scifi adventure with a lot of neat concepts. ****

Review- Vinge, “A Fire Upon the Deep”

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