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« In Which We Stoke The Fire Upon The Deep »

Singular World


A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge
391 pp.

The Children of the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
448 pp.

In 2007, Vernor Vinge won another Hugo award. This is nothing in itself. The one-time computer scientist has been winning science fiction's greatest prizes since 1981, when his widely influential novella True Names changed the genre forever. But the fact that he won it for his worst book was something of a surprise. Rainbow's End certainly had its moments, but at times its plot was so jumbled it was difficult to follow from scene to scene. The novel was most compelling in its predictions about where contemporary technology was headed. (The intelligent contact lens could be the most enticing.) But much of Rainbow's End came across as sloppily done, so much so that it was easy to fear Vinge was on the verge of a George R.R. Martin-esque situation where he become so obsessed with what fans of his work expected that he could not focus properly on writing well.

Despite being twice the novel A Game of Thrones ever was, Vinge's 1993 novel A Fire Upon the Deep never had a gaudy Hollywood adaptation, and its cult of admirers remains small in comparison. Naturally, it did win the Hugo that year, although it had to share it with Connie Willis' endless Doomsday Book. In fact, A Fire Upon the Deep could never be adapted into pablum for the masses, for several reasons.

First and foremost is that A Fire Upon the Deep is an extremely complex novel. Not so much in its prose, which was in line with Vinge's usual straightforward style. No, it was the author's conception of the universe that made A Fire Upon the Deep so rewarding and also so difficult. The book contains action sequences that take place over light years and fully grasping the consequences of events takes hundreds of pages, not seconds. Some editions of Vinge's books even came with an accompanying CD.

The opening of A Fire Upon the Deep represented a tour-de-force. As a technology writer who foretold the creation of the internet, Vinge's central theory has always been that the creation of a superhuman intelligence is inevitable. In A Fire Upon the Deep, a group of well-intentioned scientists and researchers at the High Lab accidentally create such an entity, known as The Blight.

With the help of his now-ex wife Joan D. Vinge, Vernor created the idea of Zones of Thought, a sensible take on the universe in which cross-sections play by different quantum rules. Fleeing the entity they created, the High Lab spaceship lands in the pre-technological zone, on a world occupied by aliens called Tines. Since the cliche of a crash on an alien planet is as old as science fiction itself, Vinge's unique alien creations are all the more remarkable.

Essentially, Tines are dogs, but each individual is composed of one dog pack. A Tine consists of 4 to 8 dogs who, through an organ extruding from their brain, create an individual identity through nonverbal communication. (Less than four dogs struggle to have enough brain power to speak and act, more than 8 dogs usually results in a split into two individuals.) Because of their resemblance to man's best friend, and because the idea not only made logical sense but created a million different literary possibilities, the parts of A Fire Upon the Deep that take place on the Tines World were not only the most fascinating part of the novel, but immediately constituted a sensation in themselves.

Switching between a dramatic, skin-of-your-teeth space opera and a fantasy-inflected world where dogs ruled resulted in a breakneck narrative that unfurled at the speed of light. Between these two simultaneously unfolding stories, Vinge inserted his satire of Usenet postings, foretelling how internet communication could be interpreted and ultimately misinterpreted by different groups. It was this analysis that lifted A Fire Upon the Deep from being the most readable and entertaining novel of its type to also being both incredibly amusing and prescient.

The Children of the Sky, released in October from Tor (undoubtedly the most exciting publisher in the genre), follows up on the promise of A Fire Upon the Deep and then some. A direct sequel to his classic space opera, The Children of the Sky narrows the focus of the story. Now settled on Tines World, Ravna Bergsdot is the sole individual on the planet with a working knowledge of what the outside universe looks like — the rest of the shipwrecked humans were children at the High Lab, and have all been roused from coldsleep. Positioned as something like a matriarch, she has to navigate her command of the young people along with difficult diplomacy required to deal with the kingdom's co-queen, a six-dog pack known as Woodcarver.

Vinge has become a markedly better writer over the years. One of the most difficult things for him (or any fiction writer) to get down was the concept of character. We're so used to archetypes from movies and television that it's easy to forget that real human beings tend to have a variety of flaws and vices. In contrast with the immaculate technology of her no-longer flight capable but still powerful spaceship Oobii, Ravna Bergsdot has so many blind spots it's amazing she is able to wake up in the morning, and yet at base we're dealing with an incredibly intelligent and resourceful librarian.

Unlike its predecessor, The Children of the Sky features nothing in the way of space exploration or high theory. It is concerned with how a suddenly industrial civilization establishes a technological base to change how its inhabitants live their day-to-day lives. (Sound familiar?) There's also a lot of political intrigue in The Children of the Sky, a new subject for Vinge. His basic point is that individuals who use religion or feigned political necessity in order to gain power are still at the mercy of programmers and scientists who hold the real control through innovation. Politics is simple, stupid and deadly in contrast.

Ravna Bergsdot knows that an invading force is coming to destroy Tines World as a result of the actions of scientists who created advances beyond their ken. She has raised the coldsleep children to believe that they must focus all their resources on improving technology instead of biomedical research. Her foes are blind to this prioritization; they see a woman who does not age the way they do because of treatments she received offworld that are no longer available to them, and who necessarily cannot share their priorities.

Ultimately, Vinge is on Ravna's side of the argument. He believes that the endgame of biomedical research is to extend human life at the cost of civilization itself, and so preserving people indefinitely is useless vanity. Instead, he is arguing, it is technological innovation which should occupy the majority of our resources.

The dog packs that make up each individual Tine are more akin to us, at our stage of technological development, than we are to the humans of The Children of the Sky. The literally-named Tycoon and Woodcarver may be laying the message on a bit thick, but Vinge turns the hokey names into complex, transformative figures capable of change. This is not simply because the dog characters are at least as real to us as the human ones; it is also because Tines actually alter their personalities as they incorporate new puppies and old members die.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge also created another memorable alien, the skroderiders who accompany Ravna Bergsdot and her lover Pham Nuwen as they enter what Vinge calls the Slow Zone, where the internet cannot viably reach planetary civilizations. These leafy tree-beings, immobile and mute without manufactured transport appendages and voders, make their return in The Children of the Sky, thematically proving that Vinge is as insightful about how the boundaries of living organisms evolve as he is about tech.

To write so well about the hard sci-fi elements of technology while fashioning a compelling plot and characters is the most difficult feat in literature, for it requires an expertise beyond the capacity of most. That A Fire Upon the Deep and The Children of the Sky are not so easily translatable into films or television is one of their cardinal virtues. There is nothing wrong with such a transposition, but both of these novels contain a complexity of emotion within their characters that is not so easily represented by a staid image or reproduced dialogue. These novels contain an experience than could never be replicated in another art form.

The Children of the Sky is above all a thrill ride. Whatever Vinge has been reading lately, it most likely featured steampunk, because The Children of the Sky takes advantage of every wonder a newly-industrial civilization has to offer. At times Vinge's new work, the second in what one presumes will be a trilogy, approaches the astonishing emotional ups and downs of its predecessor, a heady compliment considering A Fire Upon Deep leaves most thinking people in tears. Hot air balloons, plasma weapons, guns that dogs as well as people can hold comfortably, interspecies love and coordination, Jacobean betrayal: it's all there waiting in the Slow Zone.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about Alexander Payne's The Descendants. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

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Reader Comments (1)

Please don't forget A Deepness In The Sky, which features Pham Nuwen. Another great book!
February 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdavakins

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