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It’s the rare book that can seamlessly blend intimate human (and non-human) drama with action and concepts of galactic proportions without compromising on detail, depth and passion, but that is exactly what Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep does so well. As both a mind expanding vision of a universe divided up into “Zones of Thought” in peril from an ancient evil and as a tense drama of medieval style intrigue, the novel is able to move back and forth between the separate narratives in a way that heightens the impact of each and helps build up to a pulse pounding climax in which the two stories finally collide. While I’m not always a fan of hard science fiction, the awe-inspiring scope, complexity and originality of the universe that Vinge creates is so impressive that it was impossible not to get swept up in the story.
A Fire Upon the Deep Summary: While I can’t pretend to fully understand exactly how the “Zones” operate or why they are supposed to exist, I’ll do my best to give a general description of the ideas involved. Apparently Vinge is famous for the concept of the technological singularity, a milestone in which a civilization’s technological advancement becomes so rapid that it “transcends” normal intelligence, causing the civilization to achieve a transcendent state of power and insight. In Vinge’s novel, the galaxy is populated by billions of civilizations and races struggling to achieve this transcendent state. While many planets (including Old Earth) are stuck in the zone known as the “slowness,” in which transcendence is nearly impossible due to physical restrictions on faster than light travel, the majority of the galaxy is located in what is known as the “beyond,” a region in which the physical laws of the universe allow for more advanced computing and technology. While Earth may be stuck in the slow zone, mankind has since made its way out into the Beyond to establish a number of different civilizations, most notably in what is known as the Straumli Realm.
While attempting to access a data archive in the “transcend,” Straumli scientists unwittingly unleash an ancient intelligence known as the “Blight,” a transcendent power so old and powerful that it soon takes over all of Straumli Realm and threatens to expand outward into the rest of the known universe. While millions are enslaved by the expanding blight, a lone Straumli spacecraft carrying a potential countermeasure (and piloted by a family of scientists) is able to escape and hide at the bottom of the beyond on a world inhabited by a wolf-like race of hive mind creatures known as Tines that exist at a medieval level of civilization. When their parents are killed shortly after the crash landing, young Jefri and Johanna are each captured and held by two different groups of Tines and an ensuing power struggle threatens to destroy the countermeasure before it can be used to help stop the Blight. The final challenge of rescuing the lost children, preserving the countermeasure and using it to defeat the Blight falls in the hands of Ravna Bergsndot, a young human woman who receives a distress call from the marooned ship and figures out its importance in helping to save the universe.
A Fire Upon the Deep Review: Readers who are unfamiliar with the genre of science fiction will undoubtably have some trouble following some of the more esoteric concepts and ideas Vinge presents (I like to think that I’m pretty well read when it comes to Sci-Fi and even I had some trouble digesting everything). But once you get a general picture of what’s going on and why, it’s hard not to get swept up in the sheer epicness and scope of the novel. Few books that I’ve read have posited a universe so ancient, complex and teeming with life of all kinds that the entire lifetime of a civilization can seem as important as a grain of sand on a beach, but this novel manages just that. And while you might think that this could provoke feelings of insignificance in comparison to the vastness of the universe, I actually had the opposite reaction. In my opinion, Vinge is trying to show us the potential that we have as a species to move beyond our little corner of the galaxy and how we all strive to achieve transcendence and self realization in the face of tremendous odds. If that’s something that gets your juices flowing, then I highly recommend this book!