An Interstellar Geography of Mind: A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Reviewed by Amy Harlib
9 July 2001
Now that veteran SF writer Vernor Vinge's most recent book, A Deepness in the Sky has won the Hugo Award for best SF novel of the year, this seems to be a good time to re-assess it and the novel that inspired it, A Fire Upon the Deep, which won the Hugo in 1993. That a work of SF and its sequel should both earn such recognition is unusual and attests to the author's skill and intelligence as a writer of richly complex hard SF 'sense-of-wonder' yarns in the grandest style.
In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge creates a genuinely new and unique concept of the nature of the galaxy in which the laws of physics vary with location. The greatest potential for intelligence lies at the edges of the galaxy, where computer-like superminds, with intellects far beyond the mental capacity of any biological brain, dwell. Myriads of sentient species have moved physically and intellectually, over an evolutionary time scale measured in billions of years, toward this region on the galactic rim known as the Beyond and the Transcendence. When entities reach this locale, they have achieved a god-like state of being, and their concerns become mostly incomprehensible to lesser minds. Occasionally, however, these god-like beings, called Powers, turn their attention back to the rest of the galaxy. When doing so with malign intent, they have the potential to do untold damage and are called Perversions. The center of the Milky Way, known as the Unthinking Depths, harbors the least potential for intelligence. Between the Depths and the Beyond lies the Slow Zone, where only simple creatures and technologies can function.
The plot of A Fire Upon the Deep is set in motion through the actions of beings from the Beyond. When a team of scientists in the Straumli Realm of the Beyond discover and release an ancient Transcendent artifact, they unknowingly unleash an awesome power, The Blight, that destroys thousands of worlds by enslaving all natural and artificial intelligences on them. From this disaster, a ship manages to escape, carrying a family of scientists familiar with the guilty parties. The family's luck changes when, tragically, the ship crashes on a planet in The Slowness. The two children of the family, Jefri and his older sister Johanna, survive the crash, but their parents are killed. The youngsters are taken captive by the planet's inhabitants. These indigenous beings, four-legged creatures who run in packs, are individually no smarter than dogs or rats, but when they coalesce in packs of four or more, they form self-aware unitary persons of surprising abilities. Because their sharp claws and their spatially separate bodies work together like the tines of a fork, the humans call them Tines.
Jefri and Johanna's plight is the more difficult because each one is found and nurtured by a different group of Tines, and the two groups are rival factions, locked in a struggle for power. Although many child characters in adult stories are either sickeningly cute or obnoxious, Jefri and Johanna are thoroughly likable, and their story is the most relentlessly gripping in the novel.
The situation becomes more complex when another ship, also escaping from the Blight, seeks to rescue the stranded siblings and recover their ship, which contains an esoteric device that, if it can be triggered in time, might prevent the destruction of all intelligent life in the galaxy by the Blight. The crew of would-be saviors include Pham Nuwen, a vivid, colorful 'enhanced' human of bizarre origins (whose augmented mental powers made him aware of the disaster) and who is also the protagonist of A Deepness in the Sky; Ravna, librarian/researcher and strong, resourceful woman; and the vessel's entrepreneurial owners/operators, Blueshell and Greenstalk, a pair of genuinely charming, sentient, tree-like entities known as Skroderiders who propel themselves about on individual, mind-controlled, six-wheeled carts. When the spacecraft of hope arrives at the Tines' world at the climax of the local conflict that also coincides with a critical moment in their pursuit by the forces of the Blight, the resolution of the major plot strands offers gripping suspense, surprises, and bittersweet satisfaction.
A Fire Upon the Deep fully deserves all its accolades: the overall concept is an utterly enthralling tour de force of science-fictional imagination; the aliens are developed with memorable skill and perception; the relentless pace of the story never lags; not all the major characters survive (refreshing realism); and the clear, unadorned prose style conveys vast and strange galactic vistas and intimate emotional interaction with equal ease. This is science-fiction wonder -- intelligent, esthetic, moving, creative -- of the highest order, deep enough to set readers on fire for more.
The eager reader can then turn to A Deepness in the Sky, which returns to the universe of A Fire Upon the Deep but is set 30,000 years before Fire. It takes place entirely within the Beyond bordering on the Slow Zone and deals with complementary themes that link the two books together.
Equally huge, complex and captivating as A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky is set primarily in the system of the mysterious On/Off star that cycles from solar heat to dimness over periods of a couple of centuries. Its narrative focuses on three groups of characters. Investigating this enigmatic stellar phenomenon is the innovative Qeng Ho interstellar free trading fleet, hoping that understanding the star's weird physics may lead to an improved star drive. Residing in the system are sentient arachnoid beings, known as the Spiders, who inhabit the single planet orbiting the On/Off star. Although the Spiders are at present weak and divided into bellicose factions, they are thought to be descendants of an advanced civilization that once roamed throughout the galaxy. The Spiders survive the dark cycles of their star by hibernating in "deepnesses" far under the surface of the planet. Arriving at the same time as the Traders is the third group, the Emergents. A human-descended political entity (as are the Traders themselves), the Emergents are a ruthless society based on the Focus, a bio-technological enslavement of minds. Anticipating the incredible riches to be obtained by the group that opens trade with the aliens, the Emergents attack the Qeng Ho. The aftermath of their fight leaves both missions crippled and dependent on the Spider's ability to develop technology advanced enough to help them.
Awaiting the re-ignition of the On/Off star, the Qeng Ho struggle for freedom from the tyranny of the Emergents' mind-control and for the lives of the unsuspecting innocents on the planet below. As the star's On-cycle progresses, the Spiders, emerging from their dormancy and galvanized by a genius scientist with a vital scheme to bootstrap his civilization out of the near-extinctions it suffers during the Darks (the centuries-long Off cycles of the system's star), have an agenda of their own unsuspected by either the Qeng Ho or the Emergents.
A Deepness in the Sky is every bit as rich and satisfying and deserving of its award as A Fire Upon the Deep. The far future, otherworldly settings are rendered in convincing detail. The characters -- whether Qeng Ho, Emergent, or Spider -- are totally three-dimensional and believable, depicted with understandable motivations whether they are likable or not. The most memorable are Pham Nuwen (the behind-the-scenes leader of the Traders who survives to reappear in A Fire Upon the Deep), Sherkaner Underhill (the genius inventor of Spiderkind) and his equally remarkable family, and Emergent leader (the smiling deceiver) Tomas Nau and his sadistic assistant Ritser Brughel.
As the story flows from the viewpoints of the Qeng Ho, the Emergents, and the Spiders, the narrative offers continual new ideas and plot twists that are gripping and exciting throughout, while the themes of first contact, the horrors of slavery and mind-control, and the senselessness of war add provocative depth. Vinge's superb skill as a writer is clearly evident in A Deepness in the Sky, a science fiction novel that is deep indeed, for as it spins its ultimately intimate tale of personal victories and defeats and the power of one man's pursuit of a dream, the book also conveys a sense of cosmic vastness and eerie wonder. Considered together, the two volumes demonstrate Vinge's desire that science fiction be both a literature of mind-expanding entertainment and of serious, challenging ideas from which the reader will emerge exhilarated and enlightened.
Amy Harlib is a lifelong, avid reader of SF & F literature, retired with plenty of time to indulge in her passion for reading. She lives in NYC and welcomes intelligent feedback and discussion about the genre. Other enthusiasms: cats, archeology / anthropology / paleontology, folklore and mythology, genre films, science for intelligent laypersons, and memoirs / narratives as literature.