A Fire upon the deep

Far into the future, a human expedition awakens something from a deep space archive. Soon it consumes the tiny colony, infecting all the fleeing ships, a Blight on the known universe. Only a tiny cargo boat escapes, carrying with it a young family – and the only hope to stop it.

In Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge postulates that a post-singularity reality would make for fiction too weird or wonderful to be understood by regular human minds. To solve that problem Vinge has set up a universe divided by “zones of thought”: At the deep core of the galaxy, the unthinking depths (where no intelligent thought can exist), the slow zone (normal human intelligence/technology can exists, earth is here), the beyond (all your standard space opera techno-wizardry), and the transcend (where gods – called “Powers” live).

The Blight spreads out in the upper beyond, spreading and consuming entire civilizations (rendering them mindless thralls). It’s encroaching progress is tracked on a FTL chat-network that strongly resembles Usenet (complete with nonsense and flamewars). Ravna Bergsndot monitors the traffic from the Relay – sort of a galaxy-wide router, and ends up getting entangled with a godlike-power, Old One, and his re-animated human avatar Pham Nuwen.

Meanwhile, the Olsndot family, sole survivors of Blight, crash land on a planet deep in the slow zone. At first it looks abandoned, a pristine sub-arctic wasteland of tundra and glaciers. But upon emerging from the ship they’re ambushed by packs of intelligent dog-creatures. The parents are killed, Johanna and Jefri Olsndot taken away by rival gangs of the creatures, named Tines.

The Tines are pretty unique among aliens – they possess a distributed intelligence. Each Tine might be as smart as regular dog, but together they approach human or greater smarts. They even fight together with medieval weapons (one holding a bow in its mouth, another pulling the string).

The strength of the book lies in the original ideas (zones of thought, distributed intelligence, powers, hybrid and reanimated lifeforms). The plot itself is somewhat standard, and even with the high page-count, the protagonists come off strangely hollow. Most of them lack satisfying character arcs; instead they just to propel the space opera to the next fantastic locale.

One of the most telling portions of the book was how the rival Tine factions utilize their kidnapped humans to rapidly advance up the tech-tree. What do they make? Cannon and Radio – implements of war. Scenes of mechanized destruction follow.

Overall it’s a fun read – if lacking in literary merit (imagery, style, characterization), it makes up for it in intriguing ideas.

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