Classics Reissued: Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge
Tor, 1992, 2012
Vernor Vinge’s epic science fiction novel A Fire Upon the Deep is now twenty years old. It won sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Award when it first appeared and immediately took up a place on virtually every list of ‘Best Science Fiction Novels Ever Written.’ In recognition of the anniversary, Tor has re-issued the book in its first-ever trade paperback, a classy-looking thing fit to give as a gift – either to yourself for having survived those last calamitous decades or to some newcomer to the science fiction genre who’s in search of a mind-expanding reading experience.
The group missing from those giftees, obviously, is the broader segment of the reading population that will try science fiction if it’s served up to them pre-heated in convenient bite-sized morsels but who generally have no appetite for it in any of its wilder, less processed forms. Such readers might venerate writers like Isaac Asimov or Arthur Clarke, but if they’re lured into the deep end of the pool, they’ll usually clamber out quickly and condemn it as murky, turbulent, and overrated. This can have the unwelcome effect of balkanizing science fiction and unofficially designating several cantons as “for fans only.” On the surface, A Fire Upon the Deep looks to be exactly the kind of sci-fi novel no sci-fi fan could ever in good conscience recommend to his Nora Roberts-reading aunt in Buffalo, or even to his hipster-poser McSweeney’s-snarfing ‘literary’ friend in Cambridge. The book is long, deeply strange, and almost proudly recondite. Upon its original release, critics notoriously found it difficult even to summarize.
The thing does have a plot, and that plot is standard enough to be summarized – it’s just a bit pointless to do so. But here goes: in the far future, a group of human researchers probing an incredibly ancient alien information-dump accidentally activate … something, the ultimate computer virus, which achieves sentience and malevolence almost immediately. They flee from it in two spaceships, one of which is destroyed, the other of which lands on a planet inhabited by warring factions of hive-minded aliens. Each faction takes in a surviving human child from the spaceship, and the ship’s distress calls prompt a rescue mission which ends up having the additional goal of stopping the super-virus-entity once and for all.
The mechanics of the plot work quite well on the what-happens-next level, with Vinge jumping his readers right into the forward gait of the narrative:
Dad cut the jet, and they were in free fall again. Johanna felt a wave of nausea; ordinarily she never got space sick, but this was different. The image of land and sea in the downward window slowly grew. There were only a few scattered clouds. The coastline was an indefinite recursion of islands and straits and inlets. Dark green spread along the coast and up the valleys, shading to black and gray in the mountains. There was snow – and probably Jefri’s ice – scattered in arcs and patches. It was all so beautiful … and they were falling straight into it!
And the book’s enormous cast of characters is led by Pham Nuwen, who’s chosen by a godlike alien being called the Old One to combat the super-virus and thereby turned into a kind of alien information-dump himself, with complicated results. Vinge is a scientist by training, but his interpersonal scenes – although virtually impossible to excerpt! – have a warmth to them that’s often missing from the writings of ostensibly more touchy-feely layman writers in the genre:
Again a long silence. But now she could almost feel Pham thinking. His arms twitched tight and an occasional shudder swept his body. “Yes … yes. Lots of things fit. Most of it I still don’t understand, never will. Old One discovered something right there at the end.” His arms tightened again, and he buried his face against her neck. “It was a very … personal … sort of murder the Perversion committed on Him. Even dying, Old One learned.” More silence. “The Perversion is something very old, Ravna. Probably billions of years. A threat Old One could only theorize before it actually killed Him. But …”
One minute. Two. Yet Pham did not continue. “Don’t worry, Pham. Give it time.”
“Yeah.” He backed off far enough to look at her square in the face. “But I know this much now: Old One did this for a reason. We aren’t on a fool’s chase. There’s something at the Bottom, in that Straumer ship, that Old One thought could make a difference.”
No, the real problem with plot-recounting for this novel is the fact that the virtually every reader will consider it secondary to the vast theoretical backdrop against which that plot takes place. This is a novel of big ideas, foremost of which is that the galaxy is arranged in hierarchical accretion-discs of advancement, with the dense, primitive Unthinking Depths comprising the center. Outward from that is the Slow Zone, and then finally the outermost Beyond, where higher technologies – and the physical laws that support them – thrive. These “Zones of Thought” each come with their own local physics, and Vinge devotes a large part of the novel to more or less purely theoretical musings on what it might be like to move from a wireless universe to a dial-up universe, and then perhaps to a pre-computer universe. That the book was first written when the Internet as we know it today was in its infancy makes these musings all the more haunting and impressive.
In short, it’s all catnip to science fiction fans, who (rightly) treasure this kind of theoretical world-and-system-building by genre authors – but it’s a tough sell to the rest of the reading world. Science fiction readers dedicated to making the effort (and I’m one of them, obviously) could do worse than to point out that such hipster-embraced ‘experimental’ novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow also require their readers to a) work hard, b) be flexible, and c) adopt a large and punctiliously detailed new vocabulary. The presumption with those works is that payoff will justify the effort. The same is hugely true of A Fire Upon the Deep, spaceships notwithstanding.