A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, is a 1992 sci-fi modern classic that is getting a re-release this year from Tor. While it is not a golden age sci-fi, missing the era by about 50 years, it definitely feels like a tribute to the great classics. At the same time, it is highly regarded as one of the best science fiction novels to come out in the last 30 years. So, is this modern classic worth your time? Is the reprint something to look forward to? The answers are a resounding yes, so let’s dive into what makes this book popular.
A Fire Upon the Deep, on top of being written by an author with one of the coolest names ever, is an epic science-fiction story that explores a galaxy-spanning conflict that is being determined through medieval warfare on an unmapped planet. One of the best things Deep has going for it is, despite its size, the story starts off like a relay racer hearing a starter shot. The prologue begins with a human expedition exploring an archive/prison outside reality. Almost immediately, the group accidentally releases an ancient AI/consciousness with godlike powers. This universe is filled with beings that have ascended to higher planes of existence, so initially, this is taken as a mild problem – but then the being immediately starts to rapidly devour reality at an unheard-of rate. Realizing that this expedition has colossally shit the bed, they try to flee the being after grabbing a database containing methods left by the jailers to defeat it – only to get slapped massively off course and crashland on a primitive world with a species of dog-like alien. These aliens immediately kill most of the expedition and then rival sides in a medieval war capture the survivors (who are young children). Then (yes, after all this) things start to get interesting.
The book splits into three storylines. One is from the POV of the children who are trying to navigate a completely unknown world without advanced technology and get back to their ship. The second is from the POV of the dog aliens, who are trying to steal the technology that has fallen out of their skies, then learn to harness it to win wars. The third and final POV is a group of individuals trying to find this unmapped planet in order to recover the crashed archive to figure out how to stop this ascended being from destroying all of reality. The pacing is fast, the stakes are high, and the conflict is extremely gripping.
However, while the plot is great, where Deep really shines is its exploration of three key ideas in its worldbuilding. First are the zones. The zones are areas of space that represent different realities where the laws of physics change. High zones allow for much more flexible and powerful technology while low zones cause most tech to simply drop dead due to reality simply not supporting their functions. The planet where this archive has crashed is located in a very low zone, making it extremely hard to extract once it has been located. The second idea is around bootstrapping innovation. As the war between the sides of the dog aliens escalates, humans try to shortcut the growth of the species by showing them tech and skills they are eras from discovering. Thus, we get a thought experiment that represents Star Fleet’s worst nightmare: what could you achieve with a nascent species if you messed with their evolutionary path as much as possible.
Finally, the most interesting idea that Deep puts forth is how the minds of the dog aliens work. They are pseudo-hive minds and have a very creative form of intelligence. Each individual isn’t very smart, so they congregate in groups of 3-6 to bootstrap their intelligence by combining their minds. Each alien added to the group fundamentally alters the personality of the whole as their identity is incorporated into the collective. If the collective grows too large, the cohesion of the mind begins to fail. The aliens are constantly balancing improving their intelligence, keeping themselves sane, and not washing out their personality with unwitting pairings. It was a really original take on the hive mind idea and is absolutely fascinating to explore. There are tons more detail on how their minds work, but to learn more you will just have to read the book.
The character writing in Deep is above average, with almost every individual in the story representing a complex and deep combination of quirks and personalities. There is a surprising amount of character growth for a single book – but the story’s giant size makes that possible. The prose is also intense and powerful, resulting in a number of memorable quotes that will stick with you. Really my only complaint about Deep is that it’s a shame that all its narratives aren’t equally good. The two planetside stories around the children and aliens are always fascinating and engrossing as you slowly understand how these alien minds work and the gritty in-your-face conflict grows. The third narrative about a strike team trying to recover the archive and fight the big bad universe-eating being had a tendency to occasionally drag. There are some sloggingly long passages where it is just a group of people sitting in a traveling spaceship talking about things. It reeks of telling instead of showing and it can really break up the otherwise fast pace of the book.
I think it is fantastic that A Fire Upon the Deep is getting a re-release, as it is a great book that needs more readers. Deep’s modern ideas and old school feel make it appealing to a very wide range of sci-fi fans and will be sure to entertain anyone willing to give it the time of day. Make sure you don’t sleep on this winner or Tor will have to re-re-release it in another 30 years in an effort to give it the attention it deserves.
Rating: A Fire Upon The Deep – 8.5/10