A Fire Upon The Deep has got to be the most ambitious book I have ever read. Especially so for a book a little over 600 pages long. It’s monster space opera unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with concepts so “out there,” so advanced and complex that they are mind blowing, consciousness expanding, perhaps even life changing. Yet, this isn’t close to being a perfect book. It has some very serious flaws.
This book was published in 1992 and won the Hugo Award, perhaps deservedly, perhaps not. As I said, very ambitious. In it, there are “Zones of Thought” (The High Beyond, The Transcend, The Middle Beyond, The Low Beyond, The Slow Zone, etc.) in which the galaxy is separated into distinct “zones,” each of which is identified by its relative location to the galactic core and its ability to support various forms of advanced technology and faster-than-light travel. Somewhere in the universe is the Slow Zone, where it’s impossible to create sentient AI computers, and it’s impossible for FTL travel to work. That’s where Earth is located. Outside of that is the Beyond, where all types of alien races with FTL-travel exist and are trading and blabbering on about all sorts of crap via the Net, etc. The Beyond is broken loosely into the Low, Middle, and High Beyond, where gradually more and more advanced technology functions. If one tries to fly a High Beyond spaceship down into the Low Beyond, its more advanced functions will slowly and gradually shut down. Further out is the Transcend, where entities who have ‘transcended’ into god-like Powers dwell. They must remain in the Transcend (for the most part) to function. It’s much more complex that how I’m describing and frankly, at first, it’s a bit of a mind fuck and it took me a long, long time to get used to, but eventually I began to adjust. It’s just a very advanced notion and somewhere a cross between advanced super hard science and complete and total fantasy.
In the book, a group of cutting edge scientists investigating a five billion year-old data archive on a newly discovered planet that is actually quite ancient accidentally unleashes “the Blight,” a malignant super-intelligence/super-virus that ultra-quickly learns how to infiltrate and take control of computer systems and even living species and complete civilizations. These scientists desperately send a couple of spaceships away at the very end of their existence before their destruction at the hands of this Blight, with some of their people and some type of information that may stop the Blight from controlling and destroying potentially all galactic civilization. The last of those two surviving ships lands and is stranded on a planet with a warlike, medieval-level society of intelligent dog-like aliens called Tines. Two of the young human children who survive are taken by opposing forces of Tines, which eventually in time leads to a major conflict. One of these Tines, in control of a nine-year-old boy, gets into contact with a human scientist, convinces her the boy’s in deep trouble, going to be under attack by other Tines, is being helped by this Tine and friends and needs her help and technology, which she strives to provide. Meanwhile, she and others start racing the Blight and its minions through the galaxy to get to the Tines’ planet to rescue the boy and find out if the stranded ship really holds the key to stopping the Blight.
While the children, Johanna and Jefri Olsndot, are struggling to deal with the Tines, the superhuman intelligence/virus awakened at the scientists’ research lab, which has come to be known as the “Blight” or the “Straumli Perversion,” (based on the location and group of people who created it) begins to spread, destroying entire worlds, enslaving populations and civilizations, and killing several other “Powers” (super intelligences that abide in the top Zone that are hard to conceptualize throughout the entire book) in the process. Ravna Bergsndot, the female scientist in touch with Jefri, along with Pham Nuwen, a man from the Slow Zone who was recreated from ancient human parts and inhabited by a Power, and two Skroderiders, intelligent plants that ride on mechanical “skrodes” that support memory and mobility for their riders, take on the task of rescuing Jefri (who they believe is the only surviving human – they don’t know of his sister’s existence; neither does he) and recovering the suspected “countermeasure” to the Blight in Jefri’s ship at the Tines’ world at the bottom of the Beyond.
The book is one third hard science that is SO complex and so difficult and so far “out there” that it simply boggles the mind. The author, after all, is a mathematician and computer scientist, so it makes sense. It’s beyond complex and it made me feel quite stupid. At times, I wanted to give up because the concepts were so hard for me to even grasp that much of it felt like nonsensical babble. This is without doubt, as I already wrote, the most ambitious book I’ve ever read.
However, while it’s one third nearly beyond comprehension, it’s also one third quite a compelling story. If Vinge is capable of making his story remotely believable to the reader, it’s very engaging. An all encompassing super intelligence/virus that destroys entire worlds and is taking over the galaxy racing after a single spaceship crewed by two intelligent plants and two humans, traveling to a medieval planet of warring dogs who have captured two human children and who have in their control the sole potential weapon against this super intelligence in the galaxy in the children’s surviving ship. It’s tension filled. It has action. It has a certain degree of technology, now pathetically outdated, which I’ll get to and which is shocking. It has some form of “science.” The Tines Vinge creates as his primary alien race are quite interesting, very detailed, and described in depth with excellent character development. They are one of the better alien races and societies I have encountered in my sci fi readings over the years. Somewhat.
That said, the final third of my analysis of the book is that it’s total rubbish. My wife, who is an avid reader, scoffs at sci fi due to its “unbelievability.” I have tried to explain to her and differentiate for her sci fi “believability” versus believability before, but it’s a difficult concept to convey. For me, if the science in the book strikes me as potentially realistic and the characters act realistically – even if they are aliens – and the military action, strategy, and tactics – if military sci fi – is sound, then it’s believable sci fi. David Weber and Chris Bunch are two examples of believable military sci fi authors. Jack McDevitt is another example of another good example of a “believable” sci fi writer. Meanwhile, one of my favorite “unbelievable” sci fi writers is Philip K. Dick, who writes so over the top it’s ridiculous, but in my opinion, that’s okay because he knows it and makes no pretense about it. He’s not trying to fool anyone into believing his work is “hard” sci fi and therefore actually realistic and therefore to be taken seriously. So, it’s fine to read and enjoy him because you can take his books with a grain of salt for what they are and that’s that. Vinge, however, takes his work seriously, or at least attempts to make the reader believe so, and tries to write his Blight as believably as possible, all the while while it’s an intangible concept. How, exactly, does it literally destroy entire worlds? We only find out after it has mysteriously done so when it has sent hundreds or even thousands of ships it mysteriously now controls to Ravna’s planet to destroy it, in part because it’s a large “Net” (Internet, millions of years in the future – I’ll get to this) gateway that thousands of civilizations use for constant communication, most recently about the Blight, and it wants to do away with it. More difficult are the Tines. As advanced medieval dogs, they are hive mind-like packs of four to eight dogs who amazingly can do just about anything a single human can do, but even trying to get me to buy that is stretching things pretty far. For instance, how can dogs build stone castles complete with huge thick walls, dungeons, torture chambers, tunnels, etc., as well as entire cities? How can dogs literally get stone blocks big enough to construct castles and their walls into place and do it? How can dogs build and fire crossbows, literally? Vinge tries to describe how one dog holds it in his mouth (That straight? That steady? Honestly?) while another “loads” it with an arrow or bolt and another draws the string back and another shoots it, etc., but even with that attempt at describing their doing so, it doesn’t make it very believable for me. Field hospitals? How do dogs put up tents? Well, maybe their field hospitals don’t have tents. But the rest of the army have tents as living quarters, so literally, how do dogs put up tents? Boats, ships. How do dogs sail ships in the ocean? I’d like to see it. Seriously. I don’t think it can be done, no matter how big the damn pack is or how well it works together. They don’t have fucking opposable thumbs! Damn it Vinge, paws can’t do this shit and you can’t make me believe they can! What about Johanna’s laptop? They figure out the basic password and start using it. Literally. How can paws press keys? Wouldn’t a paw be too big to manipulate a small keyboard key? Literally? It’s not fucking believable! It’s simply not believable and that’s my biggest problem with this book. What about the Skroderiders? Even with the help of their magical skrodes, how exactly do fucking plants fly a spaceship? I know Vinge writes about their fronds, but are we REALLY supposed to buy the notion that plant fronds can fly a spaceship, especially better than their human counterparts? It’s fucking stupid as hell and it’s not remotely believable, therefore this book is utter rubbish.
One other major “issue” I take with Vinge and this book is the so-called technology this is based on. This book was published in 1992, largely pre-Web, but supposedly millions or even billions of years in the future when there are untold zillions of inhabited planets with thousands of species and civilizations. Yet, millions of years in the future, everyone – all of the species – are on the Galactic “Net,” short for Internet I assume, and I assume translated technologically by his “software” so we can all read the messages he relays for us. Because that’s what it is. Everyone, millions of years in the future, uses Newsgroups and posts thousands of messages to tons of Newsgroups an hour. It’s Usenet news, an Internet feature I used to really love back in the 1980s and ‘90s and part of the Internet that comprised its major function (besides email) until the Web came along in the early 1990s. By the mid to late ‘90s, Usenet was largely ignored, and by the 2000s, most people using the Internet had never heard of Usenet news or newsgroups. It’s beyond obsolete now. Indeed, back in the ‘90s, when I got a new ISP, which I did frequently, one of my key questions in signing up was about the existence of their news server, which was important to me. Over the past decade, however, as more and more ISPs are actually cable companies and other types of broadband companies, whenever I have asked a company representative about their news server, I get silence on the other end of the phone before they stumble around, claiming they don’t know anything about what I’m talking about and they don’t have any such thing. And it’s true. These companies no longer have news servers and I don’t even know how to access Usenet newsgroups anymore, although I suppose if I seriously wanted to, I could research it and figure out a way. My point, however, is that the author wants us to seriously believe that he had the scientific and technological foresight to predict that millions or billions of years in the future, thousands of species would be using Usenet newsgroups to post tens of thousands of messages, which he so diligently copies as authentically as he can in this book, when he can’t even predict the fact that about one year after his book’s publication – one year! – the World Wide Web would render Usenet obsolete and 15 years later, Usenet would be a thing of the past and would be largely unknown to most of humanity. Yet millions are years in the future, it’s still so fucking cutting edge, it’s the technological medium of choice for communicating between people/aliens on various worlds/ships throughout the galaxy. He seriously wants us to believe that over millions of years, no civilization or species has come up with a better or at least different method of technology or technological communication than Usenet? Are you fucking kidding me? When the Web, just one year later, obliterates Usenet on its founding planet alone? Oh yeah, and Net access is so insanely expensive that most can’t afford it! Most people/entities can’t afford to watch an important 400 second encrypted video because it’s so expensive. Seriously? Millions of years in the future, bytes are so hard to come by, that it costs more than a spaceship you’re flying in costs to access the Net and check Usenet news messages? OMFG. So, how stupid is Vinge then, really? Is he the most insanely stupid sci fi writer who has ever existed? To make such a bold prediction of future technology when short term facts wipe his book out in one year? He’s a FUCKING IDIOT and I have no idea how the hell this book won a Hugo! This book, while inventive and complex, doesn’t even deserve two stars for this fact alone! It’s fucking technologically obsolete, not only as I write this in 2016, but in 1993, and certainly millions of years from now. Can’t anyone see that? Holy shit!
So, final thoughts. Big book, not in length, but in ambition and thought. It’s an interesting story, at times well told, at times complete and utter bullshit. It’s inventive and complex. I felt like I was either on or needed LSD to survive it at times. I’ve never read anything like it. And while, at times, I largely enjoyed it, I was so put off by the Usenet news obsolete technology DISASTER Vinge wrote and by the total unbelievability of the book that I’ve got to mark this down from, at best, a four star book to perhaps a two star book. It deserves more in one way, but its mistakes and errors deserve one star, to be perfectly honest, so I’m compromising. Even though I normally wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone and certainly not to anyone not well versed in sci fi literature, if you are a sci fi vet and want a unique experience, I would probably try this book out. It’s that unusual. But on the whole, I just can’t recommend it because it has too many problems. Therefore, not recommended.