Sunday, October 30, 2011
A Fire Upon the Deep - a science fiction symphony!
A Fire Upon the Deep
Reviewed by Ann Wilkes
With Vernor Vinge's new novel, The Children of the Sky, coming out that picks up where it left off, I decided to read A Fire Upon the Deep. I'd read Vinge's Rainbow's End when it first came out and was impressed with the detail, imagination and scope of his worldbuilding. And made suitable uncomfortable by the lack of printed books in that imagined future.
Fire Upon the Deep did not disappoint. It takes readers to a far distant future in which the homeworld, Earth, is all but forgotten. In this universe, that is divided into layers, or thought zones, from the Bottom to the Middle and High Beyond to the Top and the Transcend, worlds spanning vast reaches share information via the "Known Net".
Ravna Bergsndot works at a relay station for the Net when the biggest disaster of the age descends in the form of an angry Power, an awakened God that becomes known as the Blight. In Vinge's universe, races die out or transcend, some of them achieving a god-like state as a Power. As in Greek mythology, godhead and benevolence don't always go hand in hand. This Power is a destroyer of worlds.
The most interesting characters are the sentient, dog-like Tines who operate only as a pack of four to eight members. In fewer numbers, they lose their intellect down to the level of a dog. These packs function as one and cooperate to use tools. However, they cannot come nearer than 15 feet of another pack without losing their faculties. Something they only dare for sex. They can speak to each other in hums and vibrations and verbally. Once they meet humans, they can even communicate with human speech and specific voices once they learn the language.
The skroderiders are a sort of sentient sea creature with large fronds that is found across the galaxy. Skrodes lack the ability to form short term memory and ride on wheeled devices that help them store memories in order to function intelligently.
Vinge's alien cultures in this novel are incredible! These weren't talking animals. And if that's not enough, Ravna's new boyfriend Pham Nuwen turns out to be a Frankenstein made by a Power from human parts - minus the scars and knobs and possessing a personality, albeit an egotistical one. When the Blight kills the Power that made Pham, he is left with "Godshatter". This piece of the Power can take Pham over - and does at opportune moments - but Pham can't access it or be aware in any meaningful way while being used. If you're a Stargate SG1 fan, this is like Jack having the ancients' knowledge downloaded into his head.
When the Blight destroys relay, Ravna, Pham and two skroderiders head for the Bottom of the Beyond in search of the ship that fled there with what they believe is a secret weapon that will destroy the Blight. Meanwhile, the family aboard that ship is attacked by the locals, leaving the two children orphaned and held in opposing camps, neither knowing the other survived.
The interspersed transmissions from various people sprinkled throughout the book were an interesting device that added additional perspectives through the Known Net's discussion groups.
The alien version of the concept of a complete individual in the Tines culture necessitated different pronouns. That I could follow. However, the dialog was expressed three ways. There was verbal dialog in quotes. Fine. And dialog in italics that always seemed to be what we would sarcastically think or mutter under our breath so that the person we're conversing with doesn't hear. Finally, there were unuttered thoughts that were not in italics. I'm wondering now, after reading the entire book, if these were the packs talking to itself. Would have been nice to have figured that out sooner. And I'm still only guessing. I think the reader needs a little more clues when dialog has that many layers. It should not be confusing or distracting.
In spite of that one flaw, I heartily recommend the book. It's full of action, intrigue, loss, betrayal, complex cultures, politics, warfare and evolution. And unlike so many novels written more recently, no matter how dark things got, the characters always found hope. Not many writers can do so much in one tale. Bravo! And now to read The Children of the Sky!