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A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) is a science fiction novel written by Vernor Vinge, an award-winning space opera about superhuman intelligences, well-developed aliens, variable physics, space battles, love, betrayal, genocide, and Usenet. A Fire Upon the Deep won the Hugo Award in 1993 (tied with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis).

Besides the normal print book editions, the novel was also included on a CD-ROM sold by ClariNet Communications along with the other nominees for the 1993 Hugo awards. The CD-ROM edition included numerous annotations by Vinge on his thoughts and intentions about different parts of the book.

Plot summary

Two major plotlines exist in the Fire; both are triggered by the revival of a malevolent five billion year old quasi-Power described as a "malevolent class 2 perversion" and initially known as the "Straumli Realm Perversion" (named after those responsible for its rebirth) but known eventually, because of its cancerous methods and rate of growth, as the Blight.

A human colony high in the Beyond (see below for an explanation of the Zones of Thought) had dispatched an expedition to the low Transcend, having learned of a massive 5-billion year old archive of data which had been off the Known Net for all that time. It offers the possibility of unthinkable riches for the ambitious young Straumli Realm, and they dispatch a careful expedition of archaeologist programmers to open it up and discover its secrets.

However, their precautions are insufficient, and their facility, the High Lab, is compromised: the embryonic Blight persuades them to create machines and activate programs they do not understand nor can guard against. Slowly, the Blight wakes up and grows and takes over the expedition. This intelligence is able to infiltrate and control computer systems and biological beings, quickly infecting and taking over whole civilizations in the High Beyond. Unbeknownst to the young Blight, however, two programs, copies of the minds of two expedition members, have Transcended and lurk in the local net. Unable to stop the Blight, they settle instead for devising a risky scheme to activate the countermeasure against the Blight that is included in the archive.

With some understanding of what they have unleashed, a few humans escape from the research colony before the Blight regains its full capabilities and absorbs it; of the two vessels, only one successfully escapes. That vessel travels to the edge of the Slow Zone, where the Blight would have difficulty operating. They take with them some semi-living information about their enemy (later labeled Countermeasure) from the archive, though they do not know what to do with it.

They land their sleeper ship, with a cargo of children in suspended animation, on a planet with a medieval-level civilization of dog-like creatures (the Tines) who exist as small packs of individuals. Each individual consciousness is generated by the "marriage" or enlistment of several Tines, who coordinate their thoughts via high-frequency sound. A single Tine is about as smart as a clever dog; two to three can think as well as a young human child; four to six is the standard and possess human or greater intelligence and self-awareness and personalities; under normal circumstances packs that are much larger degrade into barely-coherent mobs, though a rational pack of eight is not unheard of and one such pack plays a large role. Other configurations are possible for specialized roles. Examples include long strung-out sentry lines and garrisoned slave teams.

The cargo ship carried most of the High Lab's children in "coldsleep boxes" - boxes which induce suspended animation. The boxes are rapidly failing, and so the surviving adults begin unloading them onto the hospitable near-Earth world they had landed on. However, they are quickly ambushed and fall victim to a long-lived conflict between two Tine nations who fight over the ship. The group that initially contacts the humans, the Flenserists, led by a Tine named Steel (the protégé of the charming but sinister genius Flense, so named for his [sexual identity amongst mixed-gender packs being determined by majority] cruel research on other Tines), ambushes and kills the human adults and destroys many of the coldsleep boxes, intending to gain an advantage. The other group is led by the Woodcarver, so named for the artistic talent that first made her famous.

Flenser had developed a small but powerful kingdom that specialized in subverting and taking over neighboring countries. To escape assassination by a mob after a failed attempt to take over such a country, Flenser's component bodies had been dispersed into two or more packs, one of which is Tyrathect, whose other members had previously been part of a naive Flenserist school teacher. (It is later learned that no other parts of Flenser escaped.) Tyrathect makes her roundabout way back to Flenser's stronghold, traveling in the company of two other packs: an itinerant pilgrim and an enthusiastic dilettante inventor who fancies himself a spy for his home country, the Long Lakes Republic. They observe the ambush of the humans. The pilgrim and the spy resolve to steal the only survivor they see: Johanna Olsndot, a girl about 12 years old. Because of the return of Flenser, the troops are distracted, and the two manage to escape with Johanna aboard a Flenserist boat. Unbeknownst to them, Johanna's younger brother Jefri also survived, but remains in the hands of the Flenserists. The two groups begin frantically attempting to gain their respective human's trust, and exploit them to develop cannon and other technology. The Woodcarvers begin with the assistance of an educational databank. Lord Steel's group begins developing radio and superior cannon with the help of Jefri and his communications with the outside world through the ship, as well as a well-placed spy in Woodcarver's camp. Each sibling is unaware of the other's survival and alliance with opposing groups.

The ship had been transmitting through its FTL ultrawave apparatus ever since it landed, and its message eventually reaches Relay, thanks to Ravna Bergsndot and the Old One. Ravna Bergsndot was working as the only human intern at the Vrinimi Organization, a vast, ancient, and wealthy communication and information provider (conceptualized as much like an ISP of the late 1980s or early 1990s) based in the system of Relay. Relay is so named because it is offset from the galactic plane in the Middle Beyond and so has a clear line of sight on many different and far-flung systems; it serves as a relay for a vast amount of Known Net traffic - somewhere around 2%.

A benign Power called "Old One" (because it is known to be over 10 years old; Powers rarely maintain contact with the Beyond for more than a few years) makes contact, seeking information about the Blight and especially about humans in general who had released the Blight. It asks for Ravna to accompany its vessel back to the Transcend, but Ravna refuses: she fears being smeared across a "million million death cubes", and has learned extreme wariness of Powers from her "Applied Theology" courses, as the study of Powers is called; the Vrinimi Organization supports her, even though the Old One was offering to set up an oracle for them. So instead it reconstructs a seemingly human man, Pham Nuwen, from a frozen body collected by a Slow Zone probe and stockpiled at Relay by Vrinimi Organization (along with parts from other bodies) and infuses him with some memory of his former life, to act as its remote agent. The Old One helps in the search for escapees from the High Lab, eventually finding Jefri's signal. It designs a ship, the Out of Band II, designed to travel to the bottom of the Beyond and even handle limited travel in the Slow Zone, to reach Jefri and investigate what the ship carried with it from the High Lab.

Relay and Old One fall victim to a double surprise attack by the Blight; Relay is attacked by a vast armada. The Blight is forced to engage Old One in a very personal way, and Old One steals information about the Blight, and apparently discovers its weakness. Before dying, Old One downloads as much of itself as can fit into Pham, providing him with subconscious instructions to activate Countermeasure.

During the attack, Pham and Ravna are in the company of Blueshell and Greenstalk, intelligent plants of an eons-old trading race known as Skroderiders, who use sophisticated personal vehicles ("skrodes") to enhance both their mobility and cognitive capabilities (Skroderiders have an almost complete lack of short-term memory). All four escape Relay's destruction in the Skroderiders' ship Out of Band II, which had previously been chartered and equipped to rescue the human refugees. They then follow Jefri's signal to the Tines' planet.

While en route, they narrowly escape an alliance of anti-human military fleets, which not only know that humans are responsible for the Blight's reanimation, but also suspect that they might be acting as its agents. The truth is a little different: the Skrodes were long ago designed by the Blight, making Skroderiders its sleeper agents.

After allying with Woodcarver and defeating Steel, Pham initiates the "Countermeasure", a nanotechnological fungus-like substance/device. Countermeasure, or possibly another intelligence contacted by Countermeasure which is implied to be even more advanced than the Powers, drastically alters the boundaries of the zones of thought in that sector of the galaxy. This results in the boundaries of the Slow Zone being moved far enough out to envelop and destroy the Blight; however, this also kills Pham and strands the humans on the Tines' world in the depths of the Slow Zone. An included Known Net message from a group that specializes in Zone movement estimates that this event thrusts thousands of uninvolved civilizations into an environment where much of their technology no longer works (a situation analogous to an Earth where electricity ceases to exist) and is directly responsible for trillions of deaths.

Major themes

The zones of thought

Vinge has often expressed an opinion that realistic fiction set after the development of superhuman intelligence — an event that he calls the Singularity and considers all but inevitable — would necessarily be too strange for a human reader to enjoy, if not impossible for a human writer to create. To sidestep the issue, he turns the Singularity sideways from time into space, postulating that the galaxy has been divided (possibly by some unknown super-technology in the distant past) into "zones of thought":

  • The Unthinking Depths is the lowest level, containing the galactic core. Even the simplest organic or machine intelligences function poorly, if at all. Space travel is nearly impossible, basically requiring big, dumb vessels with neolithic automation and massive redundancy. These properties make actual exploration of this zone problematic.
  • The Slow Zone is the next layer. FTL travel and communications do not function, dependent as they are on some physical property of the universe which changes abruptly at the boundary between the Beyond and the Slow Zone. Intelligence above the level of human-equivalent is not possible. Molecular nanotechnology also doesn't function well, if at all. Earth is deep within the Slow Zone.
  • The Beyond is where the majority of the action takes place in A Fire Upon the Deep. FTL travel and communication are possible, though the latter can be prohibitively expensive, often requiring planet-sized transceiver arrays. Antigravity and mind-machine interfaces, along with many other technological advances, work in the Beyond. The limits to organic and machine intelligence vary smoothly from the boundary of the Slow Zone (the "Bottom of the Beyond") to that of the Transcend (the "Top").
  • The Transcend is where super-intelligences known as Powers reside. Here there are no limits on nanotechnology, FTL travel is very fast (relative to the Beyond), FTL communications bandwidth is cheap, and there are no limits to organic or machine intelligences or meldings between the two. Indeed, many of the Powers are a single consciousness created from an entire civilization. The Powers have passed through the technological singularity and their behavior is usually beyond human comprehension. They routinely create intelligent species from scratch, build Dyson Spheres, and in general perform near-miraculous feats of engineering on scales both atomic and cosmic. They regard involvement in the affairs of races in the Beyond in much the same way that humans would care about the competition for alpha male status amongst a pack of wild animals. Powers rarely maintain contact with the Beyond for more than a few years; it is not known whether they merely lose interest, die, go elsewhere, or transcend again to an even more incomprehensible level of being.

At the same time, Vinge implies that the Transcend can be dangerous for the inexperienced or incautious since, because organic and machine intelligence are so closely linked and interchangeable, computer viruses can literally infect organic minds.

Trivia

  • A prequel to this book was subsequently written, A Deepness in the Sky, set twenty thousand years earlier in the "Slow Zone" near Earth, detailing the earlier adventures of Pham Nuwen. Vinge's short story "The Blabber" takes place hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years after Fire though it was written first and contains several contradictions with the books.
  • The name "Lord Steel" suggests Joseph Stalin (Russian сталь (stal) means steel; – ин ( – in) is an adjectival suffix), as do many of the Flenserist society's names, mores and structures.
  • The name Flenser means literally 'one who cuts up whales' (OED). More loosely it means 'skinner', and might be intended as a reference to American psychologist B. F. Skinner.
  • Several subtle references to computer science are found in the book. For example, at one point Woodcarver mentions that a particular arrangement of the parliament chamber was strangely effective — the arrangement resembles a hypercube.
  • The name of the starship Lynsnar literally means "very fast" in Norwegian and Danish. Many other names have a Scandinavian sound to them. Arne is a common male name in Scandinavia. Most of the humans' surnames have the suffix -sndot, suggestive of a blending of the common Scandinavian -son (or -sen) and -dottir; this form may have developed during the "Age of Princesses" on Nyjora, the Slow Zone world from which humans reached the Beyond. "Samnorsk", the language of the Straumli Realm and its Perversion, was the name of a constructed language that attempted to unite the two different Norwegian national languages, Nynorsk and Bokmål between 1917 and 1966. In the foreword, Vinge mentions his 1988 trip to Oslo, the capital of Norway, and Tromsø, an Arctic Norwegian university town that hosted a computer conference that year.
  • Another Scandinavian reference is the story of the Aniara, referring to Harry Martinson's poem Aniara, also referenced in the foreword as the Aniara Society, the Oslo-based science fiction-fandom club that hosted his visit to the capital.
  • Vinge is currently working on a sequel to this novel, set approximately ten years later.

Awards and nominations

Release details

  • 1992, United States of America, Tor Books, ISBN 0-312-85182-0, Pub date April 1992, Hardback
  • 1993, United States of America, Tor Books, ISBN 0-8125-1528-5, Pub date February 1993, Paperback

Translations

  • Croatian: "Vatra nad dubinom"
    • Algoritam, 2002: ISBN 953-220-066-5.
  • Finnish: "Linnunradan ääret"
    • Like, 2008: ISBN 978-952-01-0089-6
  • French: "Un feu sur l'abîme"
    • Robert Laffont, (31 octobre 1994): ISBN-10: 2221076761 / ISBN-13: 978-2221076767
    • Livre de Poche, (1998): ISBN-10: 2253072087 / ISBN-13: 978-2253072089
  • German: "Ein Feuer auf der Tiefe"
    • Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 1995: ISBN 3-453-07986-8.
  • Hebrew: "אש על פני תהום"
    • Keter Publishing 2007: דאנאקוד 692-48
  • Italian: "Universo incostante"
    • Editrice Nord, 1993: ISBN 88-429-0738-3
    • Editrice Nord, Collana Cosmo Biblioteca, 2007: ISBN 9788842915102
  • Romanian: "Foc în adânc"
    • Editura Nemira, 2008: ISBN 978-973-143-149-9
  • Russian: "Пламя над бездной"
    • AST, 2001: ISBN 5-17-005186-7; 2003: ISBN 5-237-03425-X/ISBN 5-17-002594-7
    • AST, Yermak, 2003 (two editions): ISBN 5-17-020474-4/ISBN 5-9577-0665-5, ISBN 5-17-019900-7/ISBN 5-9577-0663-9.
  • Spanish: "Un fuego sobre el abismo"
    • Ediciones B, 1994: ISBN 84-406-4469-8.

References

External links

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