I finished another book on my list, and that means it is reading challenge time yet again! This book is #93, A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, first published in 1992. This is notable because it tied with the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis for the 1993 Hugo. Definitely a good year for genre fiction. On with the show!
This book is an interesting amalgam. It is partly a sci-fi novel about artificial intelligence and interstellar conquest, and partly a fantasy novel about warring tribes of creatures with no advanced technology. Bridging the divide are a handful of humans who happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times. The book opens with some human explorers/scavengers who uncover and activate a malevolent Power, or artificial intelligence, which gets released out into the galaxy. Only one ship escapes, carrying a family, a cargo of all the settlement’s children in cryosleep, and some fragment which may either be a piece of code the Power, eventually known as the Blight, requires or some means of stopping it. Either way the Blight desperately wants it.
The ship is able to escape mainly because of the “Zones of Thought” that this series is named after. This is the interesting conceit that there are different bands of the galaxy that permit more and more complex technology and things like advanced AIs and faster than light travel. Most Powers or AIs have to be in the Transcend or the High Beyond. The escaped ship ended up in the bottom of the Beyond, near the “Slowness” where high technology essentially breaks down and becomes useless. I think these zones make for a really interesting narrative device, but I was a little frustrated because they aren’t really clearly explained until fairly deep into the book, and because they feel like a plot device and not something that is scientifically plausible.
The story follows the two children who were awake on the escaped ship after they have an emergency landing on a low-technology planet populated by the Tines. These are creatures somewhat like dogs, where each pack of 4-8 individual animals is one whole person. I really enjoyed the thought experiment of what these creatures would be like and how their societies develop. Their politics and interpersonal relationships drive much of the narrative. There are major differences in how they respond to the fact that aliens have dropped down from the sky and bring technology and potential access to the stars. The ship’s distress beacon is picked up by the crew of the Out of Band II, which escapes a Blight attack in the High Beyond and is racing against the Blight and warmongering aliens to get to the Tines world and hopefully find the countermeasure. By the time they get near their goal they have been tailed by three different fleets of aliens, and will have to deal with a war between different factions of the Tines, and hopefully be able to save the human children in addition to saving the galaxy.
There’s a lot of high concept ideas going on in this novel, and to its credit it still manages to be engaging and have interesting characters. It is also quite entertaining watching the rest of the galaxy respond to the ongoing crisis of the Blight via what is essentially a galactic message board system, complete with probable sources and bad translations. My only real complaint is that the mechanics of the way the different zones work are weird and slightly immersion breaking for me.
TL;DR: Some high-concept ideas executed in an approachable and engaging way.
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Rating: 4/5 stars
Verdict: Read it if you like thinking about how alien races and AIs might think
Next up: Sunshine by Robin McKinley