Tor, 1992, 391 pages
A Fire Upon the Deep is the big, breakout book that fulfills the promise of Vinge's career to date: a gripping tale of galactic war told on a cosmic scale. Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind's potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function.
Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these "regions of thought", but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.
Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, not entirely composed of humans, must rescue the children-and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.
I loved this book. After the last few space operas I read, I was starting to feel like I was going to have to relegate space opera to the "guilty pleasure" category, except the guilt isn't in finding them pleasurable, but not finding them as pleasurable as I once did.
Vernor Vinge is a highly regarded author, but I just hadn't read anything by him until now. Needless to say, I will be correcting that deficiency. A Fire Upon the Deep is geeky sci-fi for geeky geeks, and yet entirely readable. And for a science fiction novel written in 1991, it has managed not to feel too dated (aside from the primary medium of interstellar communication thousands of years in the future being Usenet).
The story is set at some unspecified time in the far future. Humans have spread throughout the galaxy, and now mingle with other races in a diverse range of interstellar civilizations. Old Earth is remembered only in ancient legends; human colonies have sometimes gone through repeated cycles of falling back into a medieval dark age and then regaining space flight. While humans are still identifiably human, racially they have diverged from Earth stock sufficiently that the ethnicities that existed on the homeworld would be unrecognizable.
For unknown reasons, the galaxy is divided into "zones" which affect the speed of everything from thought to light. Far down in the Unthinking Depths, intelligence is almost impossible. Earth was located in the Slow Zone, where nothing can travel faster than light and technology and sentience is correspondingly limited. Above the Slow Zone are the realms of the Beyond; the higher you go, the faster ships, computers, and minds can operate. And above the Beyond is the Transcend, where sapient races become hyper-evolved super-intellects known as Powers.
A Fire Upon the Deep begins with a scientific expedition from one of the most advanced human civilizations, exploring the Low Transcend. They are looking for ancient information archives, possibly technology that will work down in their zone. They find something ancient, powerful, and beyond their comprehension. And it triggers a galactic armageddon.
The problem I had with Pandora's Star, which begins with a similar premise, is that while the threat was cosmic, the characters were all pretty much modern archetypes extrapolated into a far future that is also pretty much 21st century Earth with more toys. Conversely, Alastair Reynolds writes far future civilizations that are convincingly futuristic and different... but they are so different that it becomes hard to relate to any of his supposedly human characters.
Vernor Vinge actually pulls off a galactic-scale epic that makes us worry about individual characters. The technologies and civilizations are not like ours, and the humans only resemble 21st century Earth people, ethnically and culturally, in half-seen bits and pieces, but they still act like people.
Of course, Vinge cheats a little by using children stranded on a world in the Slow Zone with medieval technology. A Fire Upon the Deep is divided into two storylines: in one, Ravna Bergnsdot and Pham Nuyen are fleeing the armageddon unleashed by the Transcendent threat known as the Blight, and through them we see what galactic culture looks like. In the other storyline, two children who survived the initial unleashing of the Blight have crashed on an alien world and been taken prisoner by creatures they call the "Tines" (for the metal tines they wear on their forepaws as tools and weapons). The children are resourceful and bright, but they are children and thus mostly powerless. The ship in which they crashed, however, may hold the secret to defeating the Blight, and so Ravna and Pham are trying to reach the Tines' world before the Blight does.
Vinge brings the two storylines together with nail-biting suspense, but in the end, I was worried that the book couldn't possibly be wrapped up satisfactorily with so few pages left to go. How do you end a threat to the entire galaxy in a couple of chapters?
And he actually pulled it off. Was it a bit deux ex machina? Yes -- it almost had to be. Yet the groundwork had been laid sufficiently by Vinge's rather fantastic physics that the "solution" was, if a bit fuzzy around the edges, believable enough not to feel like cheating.
I liked Vinge's characters, but I have to say that it was his aliens that interested me more than the humans. Ravna and Pham both have personalities that are complete enough, with a mix of positives and negatives, but neither of them seemed to quite live up to their character potential. Early romantic development is aborted rather abruptly by events and never resumed, so that it almost felt like Vinge had to include one (mercifully brief) obligatory sex scene before moving on with the story. The children, Jefri and Johanna, are nice kids and I did worry about them at times when it seemed like either or both might get offed, but I didn't really care about them enough to fear for them.
No, it was the aliens I really liked. While there are many different species in the galaxy, only two figure significantly in the story. The first is the Riders, plant-like traders who are found throughout the galaxy. They are slow thinkers whose evolution made short-term memories an unnecessary luxury; thus, they have "Skrodes" they ride, wheeled conveyances that give them both mobility and, through a neural interface, the ability to remember that someone just asked them a question. Two of the Riders accompany Pham and Ravna on their flight/rescue mission, and play a pivotal role in the conclusion.
The other alien race, the one that gets the most attention, is the Tines (or as they call themselves, the Packs). They are a race of group-minds; individually, each Tine is only as smart as a bright animal, but when they are in close proximity, they "merge" into composite personalities, forming Packs of four, six, sometimes eight singletons who make up a single "individual."
The first thing that impressed me about these aliens was that Vinge put so much thought into them and carefully worked through all the physical, psychological, and cultural implications of their alien natures. The second was that the author actually made me care about ambulatory plant people and a bunch of medieval rat-like group minds. He made the personalities of individual Riders and Tines convincing and distinct, and I actually cared about them getting killed.
This was the first book in Vinge's "Zones of Thought" series. Happily for me, Vinge is coming out with a sequel in October: The Children of the Sky. Unlike all the other fans who've had to wait twenty years, I only have to wait another few months. Plenty of time to read the "prequel" novel, A Deepness in the Sky.
Verdict: This is the best space opera I've read in a long time. It's packed with Big Ideas and weird physics and strange aliens, and it's got space battles and medieval adventures in the same book in a way that actually makes sense. A very deserving Hugo Award winner, and another author I've added to my must-read list. Space Opera, will you take me back? I promise not to leave you again.