A Fire Upon the Deep
The galaxy is divided into Zones, different laws of nature applying in each. The long-forgotten Earth is in one where intelligences are tightly constrained, nanotechnology breaks down rapidly, and nothing can travel faster than light. Further out, FTL travel becomes possible, and ultimately, in the Transcend, godlike Powers live, post-singularity beings as comprehensible to us as we are to goldfish. One day, a foolhardy expedition into the Transcend awakens the Blight: a long-dormant Power, actively evil and mighty enough to drive all before it. Yet all hope is not lost: the expedition’s last survivors crashland a ship with the countermeasure far away, upon a world populated by doglike creatures with pack minds and medieval technology. Now not one, but two races are on. Two factions on that planet, each the beneficiary of technology from the wrecked starship, each asisted by a child survivor of the crash, engage in a war that will determine the destiny of their world; meanwhile, a rescue team speeds to the planet, one step ahead of the Blight’s agents.
Vinge pioneered the concept of the Singularity in science fiction, so I picked up this book on the strength of his name (and on the book’s status as a classic). Plotwise, the book delivers the goods. The plot following the rescue crew is slow to start with, but builds up speed. However, I found the real attraction to be the plot following the brewing conflict on the planet, and the attendant exploration of the alien society. The book has decent characters — each is convincing and distinct. Most of them don’t rise to the level of true greatness, but Vinge should be commended anyway for doing a good, fresh job of depicting a well-worn archetype, the cocky, Han Solo-esque free trader, and throwing in an interesting twist. Idea-wise, the book, if anything, was too successful. Its impact on me was not what it could have been, due to my existing familiarity with the core concepts — the Singularity and transcendant Powers are now prominent concepts in sf, and I’ve also read a little bit about the “zones”. However, I liked the book’s alien races, especially the “pack mind” race, even though it reminded me a bit of the earlier alien race in Poul Anderson’s The Rebel Worlds. In one respect, the book does feel dated: extensive references to a galactic Usenet, though no doubt burnishing Vinge’s cutting-edge credentials at the time, just make the absence of the Web all the more conspicuous. Still, it’s a trivial thing; Vinge can hardly be faulted for failing in that prediction. Vinge’s prose is clear and serviceable, though otherwise unremarkable.
A couple of things deserve special note. One is Vinge’s use of multiple points of view — none of whom is perfect or omniscient; each of whom makes mistakes — to deliver dramatic irony, and thus suspense. For a fair portion of the book, I was mentally screaming at a given character, “No! Don’t trust him!”, in circumstances where it made perfect in-character sense for the character to be trusting! Another is a particular plot development. At one point, a coalition of alien races decides humanity is a creation of the Blight, and sets out to exterminate us. The story makes it quite clear that their accusation is incorrect, something that made me file them under “unsympathetic/opponents/side villains”. But later, we find out who the true creations of the Blight are — and in a remarkable case of turnaround, first made to consider the morality of slaughtering them, and then our own anthropocentric double standard.
All in all, this book was not as mindblowing as it could have been, perhaps due to its age and status — but it was a fine read anyway. Recommended to fans of science fiction and space opera.
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