A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon The Deep is a space opera novel by Vernor Vinge that takes the reader from one end of space to the other.  Showing the reader strange aliens, intelligences beyond human understanding, space battles and betrayals that span aeons.

The novel was released in 1992 and went on to win the Hugo award. In the subsequent years it’s become established as a science fiction classic. It’s also on our list of best space operas.

A Fire Upon the Deep Summary

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of A Fire Upon The Deep is the way it separates the galaxy,  by splitting it up into four zones. Where you are situated in those zones affects your intellectual and technological capabilities:

The unthinking depths: only basic forms of life can survive here.

The slow zone: where Earth resides. Sentient life is possible here, but faster than light travel and communication is not.

The beyond: the area of space when faster than light travel is possible, as well as true artificial intelligence and faster than light communication.

The transcend: species that reside here are beyond our comprehension and we are little more than funny monkeys to them.

The novel begins when a human expedition awakes an ancient power  at the top of the beyond.  Once the threat is discovered a family of scientists race to the far end of the slow zone to try and escape this abomination, called the Blight.  Eventually they crash land on a medieval world full of sentient creatures that resemble wolves (the Tines). Unbeknown to the humans, their ship contains the only known countermeasure to the Blight.

Back in the Beyond another human, Ravna, is tasked with delving into the Slow Zone to try and save the family and recover the countermeasure. She is aided by Pham, a reconstituted human, and two Skroderiders, Blueshell and Greenstalk. Skroderiders being part mechanical sentient plants. 

The (dis)information age

The races and species across the The Beyond are connected by the the ‘net’. A faster than light communications system that acts somewhat like a vast internet forum. When the Blight starts to take control of the upper reaches of the Beyond the net is flooded with wild speculation and scurrilous lies about the nature of the threat.

It’s not hard to see this as a prescient critique of the fake news age we’ve entered into recently. Lies build momentum, resulting in hatred and violence. 

Control vs Adaptation

The Blight could be considered an ancient malevolent software capable of overwriting intelligence life. Its goal is to conquer by taking control through replication of itself over others will.

On the other hand we have the Tines. An individual Tine is a small pack of three or more individuals, that come together to make something close to a hive mind. If one member of the ‘pack’ dies they can be replaced. This changes the packs nature, but the underlying individual endures.

While the Blight seeks to conquer through making others an extension of itself, the Tines grow through the incorporation of others into a collective that adds to their individuality and builds on it, rather than sublimating it. Indeed, the Tines in the the novel that look to subvert this organic growth of the individual  are shown to be evil and unnatural.

A true fantasy novel

Like Ancillary Justice, which we reviewed recently, A Fire Upon the Deep is very much a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Vinge smashes his hard sci-fi sensibilities into this fantasy world to produce a remarkable work.

Indeed, when the the human family crashes on the Tines world, it’s like the spaceship from Rendezvous with Rama landing on the set of the Game of Thrones.

A Fire Upon the Deep is an epic fantasy quest across the stars, but written in a hard science fiction style. It even has a fantasy hero, in Pham, who is a character taken from the age of heroes transported into the far future.

The relentless Blight

We don’t get much insight into the nature of the Blight. We understand that it’s relentless and its goal is total domination. But we don’t get to understand its motivations or anything of its character. It is an unknowable evil that stalks its prey without pity. It shows no mercy for children and is capable of shocking violence. There is no reasoning with it nor is there any point in asking for mercy.

In that sense, it’s the perfect antagonist. The fear it inspires in the protagonists drives the plot forward, but the Blight itself stays largely in the shadows. This allows the novel to focus more on Ravna, Pham and those stuck on Tines’ world.

During the middle section of the novel the pacing can slow down a little too much, but other than that there is very little to fault in this book. There is a sense of dread built up throughout the novel that’s both compelling and engaging. But what makes the A Fire Upon The Deep such a compelling work is its raw uniqueness. There is no other novel that brings together such a wide range of genres so elegantly. 

If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our ultimate science fiction reading list or our review of another classic space opera: Hyperion.

  • A Fire Upon The Deep Rating

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