A Fire Upon the Deep
By Vernor Vinge
First Published: 1992
US Jacket Art: Boris Vallejo
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Alien Contact
A Fire Upon the Deep is an epic hard science fiction novel that won the Hugo Award (tied with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis). I can certainly see how this novel won a prestigious award. It is a complex well written novel with innovative new ideas combined with exciting action. This is not a light summer read. Rather, it is a challenging novel that rewards the reader with exciting new discoveries. It contains two high tension adventures and a desperate battle against ultimate evil with a large slice of the universe hanging in the balance.
As a backdrop for this novel, Vinge came up with an innovative premise that the galaxy is divided into Zones of thought which have profound effects on automation, intelligence, and physics. The zones go from the “Unthinking Depths” at the center of the galaxy to the “Slow Zone” to the “Beyond” at the outer edges of the galaxy. Within the “Beyond”, ships can travel at hundreds of times the speed of light while in the “Slow Zone” ships can barely travel faster than the speed of light and within the “Unthinking Depths” nothing can travel faster than the speed of light which makes interstellar travel impractical within the depths. Similarly, automation and artificial intelligence is fantastically advanced in the “Beyond” where artificial intelligence greatly exceeds the intelligence of humans and other biologicals while in the center of the galaxy, automation and artificial intelligence capabilities are severely limited. Also, within this universe, civilizations tend to work their way outward from one level to the next until they reach the “Transcend” zone where they can graduate to becoming virtually immortal and omniscient and become a “Power” in the universe.
The plot of A Fire Upon the Deep is kicked off when a human research group exploring the “Upper Beyond” discovers a highly advanced archive of information from a previous civilization or “Power”. Hoping to discover highly advanced technology, they inadvertently awaken something of enormous power and evil that has been inert for millions if not billions of years. This entity becomes known as the “Blight” and soon becomes a threat to the hundreds of civilizations in the nearby “Beyond”.
When the implications of the “Blight” start to become understood, a mission is hastily put together to penetrate into the “Slow Zone” in order to rescue a potential key to enable slowing or destroying the “Blight”. This becomes one of the two narratives contained with A Fire Upon the Deep. The second narrative involves a spaceship with humans including children who land on an alien world in the “Slow Zone”. This narrative becomes a novel of first contact with a low technology (medieval level) civilization that is unique because the inhabitants’ intelligence is based on “pack” intelligence. Individuals do not have any real thinking capability but groups of 3 or more inhabitants are able to combine into a single “mind” with a unique personality and self-awareness that controls multiple bodies. As both narratives race against time and eventually come together, Vinge creates an exciting and satisfying climax.
With a combination of space opera and medieval conflict, this novel offers something for everyone. Both narratives have plenty of action and involve races against time. The space opera narrative includes human and alien characters, communication with “Powers” and other civilizations, and large scale space battles. The medieval alien contact narrative includes unique alien characters and a war between two kingdoms filled with intrigues and treachery.
Vinge does an amazing job of creating interesting and unique characters among the pack intelligence aliens within the medieval world. He also does a great job of character development with the main human characters and their alien partners within the space opera narrative. Unlike some lessor space operas, don’t expect all the main characters to survive the adventures. Within this novel, the good guys are not always guaranteed to win.
I highly recommend A Fire Upon the Deep for anyone willing to invest some serious effort and thought into immersing themselves into the unique and highly entertaining universe created by Vernor Vinge.