Wordy Wednesday – A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

I picked this up on a whim, because why not? As sci-fi, it had some neat ideas. As a novel, it dragged a bit.

In keeping with the tradition of sci-fi books I’ve read lately, this one has dog-like aliens sexing each other up. But it doesn’t dwell on it – it just kind of mentions it, then fades to black. It wasn’t as offensive as the dolphins in Startide Rising.

Anyway! A Fire Upon the Deep sets up the galaxy in a strange way. There are levels, or zones, and each zone has a different kind of physics. There’s the Beyond, where the story starts. The Beyond allows for faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, and other sci-fi technologies. It’s a kind of middle zone. Above it is the Transcend, where impossible things happen. There’s a general goal for civilizations to reach the Transcend, and when they do, a bunch of people from the civilization apparently merge into a single being, called a Power. They have almost god-like powers, some of which we see during the book – like when one Power creates an amalgamated human from a bunch of human parts.

Beneath the Beyond is the Deep, or the Slow Zone, where faster-than-light travel is impossible. To get anywhere, you have to use ramscoop jets and go into coldsleep (cryogenic suspended animation) to get anywhere. Earth is in the Slow Zone, but Earth is on the other side of the galaxy from where the story takes place.

At the very bottom, which is the center of the galaxy, is the Unthinking Depths. Sentient intelligence is not possible here.

Hooray space!

Humans are researching an ancient data storage center in the Beyond. They have a little outpost there, called High Lab, and their goal is to create a human Power to reach the Transcend. But what they awaken instead is a five-billion-year-old Blight – a corrupted intelligence, like an evil Power, that can operate in the Beyond. The Blight kills many of the humans in the outpost, takes over the minds of others, and begins to expand. A single ship escapes, and it carries with it what might be the only weapon that can stop the Blight, a Countermeasure taken from the same data storage center.

That ship crashes on a planet that has sentient creatures. These creatures, later called Tines, are group intelligences. They’re similar to a pack of dogs, with long serpentine necks and rat-like tails, and each pack is a single creature. They change over time as members die. At least four individuals are needed for a sentient mind, and no more than eight or so can belong at one time. When one dies, another individual can be incorporated, though this subtly alters the group consciousness and, over time, changes the personality of the pack.

It’s an idea I’d never seen before. I like it, it’s interesting. Some of the sentient minds try to keep themselves alive by having their pack members mate with each other. This can sustain a unified intellect for a while, but eventually inbreeding catches up with them and results in serious mental or physical deterioration. Other packs, known as Pilgrims, travel the world and seem to accept new pack members more readily than others. One of the Pilgrim characters in the novel has centuries of memories, but the oldest are distant and foggy, like half-remembered dreams. New members change the outlook of the group mind, and many fast changes all at once can utterly destroy it. It’s a delicate thing.

“I should think about this.” Get it? A little Tine humor for you there.

Those are the things I liked – a partitioned galaxy and pack sentience. What I didn’t like was, well, a couple of things. First, the book takes place over the span of a year or so. This by itself isn’t a bad thing, but Vinge didn’t carry the tension through. The ship carrying the Countermeasure crash lands on a planet in the Low Beyond – it’s near the Slow Zone. There’s a rescue team on the way, and they want to save the two children that survived the crash. In the Beyond, they’re moving at FTL speeds towards the Slow Zone, and being trailed by agents of the Blight. But part of the problem is how we perceive the Blight.

As it expands, more and more civilizations are calling for help or discussing the issue on what passes for the Beyond’s internet (it actually resembles the old Usenet boards, which was kind of fun to see). But it’s a distant threat to the characters on the ship – at least, that’s how it comes across to me. Sure, these characters have emotions about it, some a little overblown, but the events don’t directly affect any character we are introduced to. The exception is one of the Powers, which we know only through proxy, and it is difficult to sympathize with a god-like creature of alien dimensions.

So the Blight never felt like it was a threat to me. It was a distant event that the characters were rushing to stop. I had little emotional connection to the characters on the rescue ship. The children, on the other hand – I was connected to them. But only because they annoyed me.

There is Jefri (I hate the “slightly different spelling of a name you are familiar with” tactic in sci-fi) and his sister Johanna. There is another Johanna in the book for some reason, the name of a commander of a spacefleet that comes to help the rescue ship briefly. I don’t know why Vinge thought that was a good idea – at first, I thought the rescue ship was talking to Johanna the child on the Tines planet, which is odd since the rescue ship, at this point, only knows about Jefri. It was needlessly distracting.

“Johanna’s on the ship?”  “Right, Johanna’s on the ship.”    “But Johanna’s on the planet!”  “Yeah, Johanna’s on the planet.”

Anyway, the ship carrying the Countermeasure crash lands on the Tines’ planet. Jefri, Johanna, and their parents are the only members on board who are awake – there are dozens of children from High Lab in coldsleep chambers on board. They crash land, and when they exit the ship, a group of Tines ambushes them. These Tines are led by Lord Steel, a pack that has been put together by a Tine called Flenser for the sole purpose of being a cruel, domineering leader. Jefri and Johanna’s parents are killed, and the children are separated. Johanna is hit with an arrow in the chest and is stolen by the Pilgrim and his friend. They take her south to a gentler town ruled by the Tine Woodcarver. Jefri is taken by Lord Steel’s forces and placed in his castle.

First, I wondered how Johanna survived a boat ride that took days while she had an arrow in her chest. That is just kind of ignored in the novel. I also took exception to Lord Steel’s plan. He wants to trick the space-faring rescuers into landing in an area he has built to trap them, hoping to steal their spaceship. So then he’ll have . . . one spaceship. Designed to be worked by humans, not weird pack aliens. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He wants to rule his own world, and alien technology will help him do that, but he just ignores the fact that there are entire alien civilizations out there. He wants to conquer them eventually as well. It’s like he doesn’t think that maybe, just maybe, some of those other aliens might want to, I dunno, stop him? And his one spaceship and his utter ignorance of space-age technology, because the Tines’ world is basically in their medieval era? Just maybe?

Here we have a villain acting in a narrow-minded way. That’s two failed villains. The Blight is far away and doesn’t affect anyone we, the readers, care about or even know, and Lord Steel is an idiot.

What helps is that Jefri is stupid and annoying – I was almost rooting for Lord Steel. Jefri immediately accepts the lies fed to him without any questioning. I know he’s a child, but I had hoped a child from one of the most advanced research centers of humanity (High Lab, they were working on building a Power to reach the Transcend, remember), well, I had hoped he wouldn’t be stupid. But he is. Oh well.

I couldn’t find a picture resembling my mental image of Jefri, so I went ahead and drew one for you.

His sister is more on the ball. Johanna hates the Tines for killing her parents. She is openly antagonistic at first, and it takes her a while to trust that Woodcarver and the Pilgrim are actually allies. She hates them irrationally too, which made sense – she’s on an alien world, pre-industrial where she is used to space-age and faster-than-light travel, no common language for a while until the Tines learn her language. When they take the arrow out, they don’t have anesthetic, so when they operate on her, she views it as a kind of torture because she has to be awake for the whole thing.

Overall, I only liked one character, Johanna. The story was okay, though at parts it was a little threadbare. Plus the two supposedly big threats, the Blight and Lord Steel, are distant and ill defined, and kind of stupid respectively.

I do not recommend this book.

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About seansynthetic

"...so I says the the guy, I says to him, 'No, YOU ain't allowed back into this Chuck-E-Cheese.'"

Posted on September 5, 2012, in Wordy Wednesdays and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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