Monday, April 17, 2006

A Fire Upon The Deep - Vernor Vinge

Title: A Fire Upon The Deep
Author: Vernor Vinge
Publisher: Gollancz

The human race has managed to transcend the slow zone of the universe, though it wasn’t easy, and Earth is a distant memory. The universe is filled with a wild variety of races, life forms that rise and fall – struggling forth from the slow zone through the beyond, until they transcend and become Powers or die out. A group of human’s from Sjandra Kei, a predominantly human demesne, have discovered an archive. Their hope is that this millions of year old well of information will give them a new edge. Though of course, they have to approach any archive like this cautiously, wary of unleashing a singularity. Unfortunately, the fragments of intelligence in the archive are smarter than they are, and draws them in. At the last minute they realise what they have done and try and escape with what they hope is an item that will prevent the intelligence gaining full power.

However, the power breaks free, and only one ship survives, crashing deep into the Slowness. Where only Jefri and Johanna make it through the attack by the inhabitants of the planet they land on. Tines world, inhabited by dog/rat like creatures, life forms that are only intelligent in pack formations. Two different forces get each of the children, and they each believe that they are the only survivor. A tension and potential for betrayal that is set up early in the novel, though the punch line is a long time coming.

Powers come and go. A lot of people are confident that what they are seeing from the Sjandra Kei Blight is a Type II power – one that will burn itself out in a decade or so, probably only killing a few million life forms in the process. But as time passes, the Blight starts to destroy powers, to devour galaxies, to start searching for something. So that it becomes clear, this is no ordinary power, this is something incredibly ancient, incredibly malignant. Ravna is the only human on Relay, a strategically placed station, that works between this area of space and the transcend. This makes her uniquely qualified to deal with queries from an elder power from above. A power that hacks together body parts until it has its own human – Pham. But with the destruction of Relay, and the discovery that someone survives on Tines world, Ravna and Pham have to get down there and hope that whatever was taken from the archive will stop the Blight.

Vernor Vinge takes the ideas of Singularity, of intelligence expanding exponentially and threateningly, as featured in his early novella True Names, and extends that into a Space Opera template. Despite being published in the early 1990’s, A Fire Upon The Deep feels particularly contemporary, and gives many of the recent purveyors of Space Opera a run for their money. Like True Names, Vinge adds fantasy elements, the Tine’s world is medieval, the group mind set-up having prevented the development of technology. So the novel works between castles and tribes, overwhelmed by the arrival of outsiders. Which compares to Pham’s memories, fractions of histories put in his head of mankind’s own medieval period. While he and Ravna make a mad dash, hunted by the fleet of the Blight and a genocidal force that believes that humans are responsible for everything that is going wrong.

A Fire Upon The Deep is just short of 600 pages, and at times it maybe feels a little long. Especially as the inevitable confrontations and revelations build to a point where you start to think you are going to burst if Vinge doesn’t deliver soon. But to a degree, that need for deliverance, and the lightness of Vinge’s writing keeps you turning the pages.

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