A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought #1) – Vernor Vinge (1992)
Vinge has created a marvellous galactic culture here, much like Brin’s Uplift universe, where humanity are relative newcomers to a galactic civilisation billions of years old. Indeed, the concept of Uplift is employed as a plot device discovered later in the novel.
Vinge takes the unusual premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of Thought with somewhat fluid boundaries. Intelligence and technology thrive better in those zones closest to intergalactic space, the Transcend, and some races and AIs have become transcendent ‘Powers’. In the slow zones, high level technology has problems and ships’ drives are reduced to a sublight crawl.
Humanity has spread out into the galaxy and one offshoot, the Straumli Realm, has discovered a cache of billion year old data and technology. They do not realise until too late that they have awakened an ancient and vicious AI. One ship manages to escape with, unbeknown to the humans, a possible solution to dealing with The Blight, as the AI becomes subsequently known. The Blight begins to infect the galaxy while searching for the escaped ship.
The ship lands on a medieval era planet populated by swan-necked doglike creatures, the Tines, who have evolved into gestalt packs who each share a single consciousness, communicating by tympanic membranes in the shoulder area.
Meanwhile, a human librarian, a man – reconstructed Frankenstein fashion by an ‘Old Power’ – and a pair of cyborg sentient vegetables who live in symbiosis with robotic mobility buggies realise that the lost ship may hold the secret to defeating the Blight. They therefore set off into the Slow Zone on a desperate mission.
This is a wonderful if somewhat lengthy piece of Nineties Space Opera, fast paced and filled with well-embellished locations and societies, wit and suspense.
Doorstop novels were a big thing (literally) in the Nineties and ranged from six hundred pages (Vinge’s book is in the lower bracket) to Peter F Hamilton’s fifteen hundred page epics. Not a word wasted with either of these authors it has to be said, although many of the others may have benefited from some trimming.
One tends to wonder if this might be a book which falls somewhere between a novel and a trilogy. It would have been interesting to have seen an expanded version over two or more (shorter) volumes with perhaps a side story set in the areas controlled by The Blight.
I tend not to approve of mixing hitech societies with the medieval, mainly because it is often done badly. Peter F Hamilton’s Void novels employed this extensively with the result that the sections set in a medieval human society, albeit within an SF setting, were far less interesting than the contrasting galaxy of AIs, wormholes, human immortals and weird aliens.
Here however Vinge has set the weird aliens within a pre-industrial culture and it’s a well thought out joy of a thing.
The plot is incredibly basic. Major threat to the Galaxy. A small band set out against all odds to get to the-thing-that-can-save-or-destroy-the-cosmos before the major threat does.
Indiana Jones. Star Trek Beyond. It’s a tried and trusted formula.
Vinge takes the basic ingredients though and whisks us up this rich and detailed souffle.
If I have any criticism at all it would be that Vinge has maybe over-anthropomorphised the Tines whose personalities – albeit shared among several individuals – are all too human in their culture and lifestyle. One would expect more specific cultural mores to reflect their pack-centric lifestyles. What is interesting – and not really explored enough – is the concept of identity within the Tines which changes as older members die and are replaced.
On the whole though this is excellent; well-written, compelling, colourful gung-ho Space Opera.