Vernor Vinge,
A Fire Upon the Deep
(Tor, 1993)

Now that veteran SF writer Vernor Vinge's most recent book, A Deepness in the Sky, has just won the Hugo Award for best SF novel of the year, it seems a good time to reassess the novel that inspired it, A Fire Upon the Deep, also a Hugo winner. That a work of SF and its sequel should both earn such recognition is unusual and attests to the author's skill and intelligence as a writer of richly complex hard SF "sense-of-wonder" yarns in the grandest style.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge has created a genuinely new and unique concept of the nature of the galaxy where the laws of physics vary with location. The greatest potential for intelligence lies furthest from the center, at the edges where computer-like superminds far beyond anything possible in a biological brain can be found. Myriads of sentient species have moved physically and intellectually, over an evolutionary time scale measured in billions of years, toward the region on the galactic rim known as The Beyond and The Transcendence, where god-like entities known as Powers exist. Their concerns are mostly incomprehensible to lesser beings, but occasionally a Power turns its attention back to the rest of the galaxy -- with the potential to do untold damage.

In the center of the Milky Way are the Unthinking Depths and the Slow Zone, regions where only simple creatures and technologies can function. When a team of scientists in the Straumli Realm of The Beyond discover and release an ancient Transcendent artifact, they unknowingly unleash an awesome power, the Blight, which destroys thousands of worlds by enslaving all natural and artificial intelligences.

From this disaster, a ship escapes with a family of scientists and their two pre-adolescent children, Jefri and his older sister Johanna, aboard. (They are notable examples of juvenile characters in an adult story that are not sickeningly cute or obnoxious!) They are shipwrecked on a planet in The Slowness, their parents killed and the youngsters taken captive by particularly fascinating aliens of a medieval-level society called the Tines. These beings, four-legged creatures who run in packs, are individually no smarter than dogs or rats, but when they coalesce in packs of four or more, they form self-aware unitary persons of surprising abilities.

Another ship comes seeking the stranded siblings and the Countermeasure, which might prevent the Blight's spread. Among the ship's crew is Pham Nuwen, the colorful "enhanced" human who is the protagonist of A Deepness in the Sky. It is here that the various plot strands connect and are resolved in a tale of gripping suspense, surprises and bittersweet satisfaction.

A Fire Upon the Deep fully deserves all its accolades -- the overall concept is an utterly enthralling tour de force of science-fictional imagination: the aliens are developed with memorable skill and perception; the relentless pace of the story never lags (especially the plight of the thoroughly likeable Johanna and Jefri); not all the major characters survive (refreshing realism); and the clear unadorned prose style conveys vast and strange galactic vistas and intimate emotional interaction with equal ease and sometimes simultaneously! This is science-fiction wonder -- intelligent, esthetic, moving, creative -- of the highest order and deep enough to set readers on fire for more. A Deepness in the Sky awaits!

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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