A Fire Upon the Deep
|Cover artist||Boris Vallejo|
|Series||Zones of Thought series|
|Genre||Hard science fiction|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3572.I534 F57 1992|
|Followed by||A Deepness in the Sky|
A Fire Upon the Deep is a science fiction novel by American writer Vernor Vinge, a space opera involving superhuman intelligences, aliens, variable physics, space battles, love, betrayal, genocide, and a conversation medium resembling Usenet. A Fire Upon the Deep won the Hugo Award in 1993 (tied with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis).
Besides the normal print book editions, the novel was also included on a CD-ROM sold by ClariNet Communications along with the other nominees for the 1993 Hugo awards. The CD-ROM edition included numerous annotations by Vinge on his thoughts and intentions about different parts of the book.
The novel is set in various locations in the Milky Way. The galaxy is divided into four concentric volumes called the "Zones of Thought"; it is not clear to the novel's characters if this is a natural phenomenon or an artificially-produced one, but it seems to roughly correspond with galactic-scale stellar density and a Beyond region is mentioned in the Sculptor Galaxy as well. The Zones reflect fundamental differences in basic physical laws, and one of the main consequences is their effect on intelligence, both biological and artificial. Artificial intelligence and automation is most directly affected, in that advanced hardware and software from the Beyond or the Transcend will work less and less well as a ship "descends" towards the Unthinking Depths. But even biological intelligence is affected to a lesser degree. The four zones are spoken of in terms of "low" to "high" as follows:
- The Unthinking Depths are the innermost zone, surrounding the galactic core. In it, no forms of intelligence, biological or otherwise, are possible. This means that any ship straying into the Depths will be stranded, effectively permanently. Even if the crew did not die immediately--and some forms of life native to "higher" Zones would likely do so--they would be rendered incapable of even rudimentary intelligence, leaving them unable to operate their ship in any meaningful way.
- Surrounding the Depths is the Slow Zone. The Earth (called "Old Earth") is located in this Zone, and humanity is said to have originated there, although Earth plays no significant role in the story. Biological intelligence is possible in "the Slowness", but not true, sentient, artificial intelligence. Faster-than-light travel may not be initiated in the Slow Zone, i.e., one may "jump" into the Slow Zone, but not back out. All ships which find themselves in the Slow Zone are restricted to sub-light speeds. Faster-than-light communication is impossible into or out of the Slow Zone. As the boundaries of the Zones are unknown and subject to change, accidental entry to the Slow Zone is a major interstellar navigational hazard at the "Bottom" of the Beyond. Starships which operate near the Beyond/Slow Zone border often have an auxiliary Bussard ramjet drive, so that, if they accidentally stray into the Slow Zone (thus disabling any FTL drive), they will at least have a backup (sub-light) drive to push them back 'up' to the Beyond. Such ships also tend to include "coldsleep" equipment, as it is likely that any such return will still take many subjective lifetimes for most species.
- The next outermost layer is the Beyond, within which artificial intelligence, faster-than-light travel and faster-than-light communication, and antigravity are possible. A few human civilizations exist in the Beyond, all descended from a single ethnic Norwegian group which managed to travel from the Slow Zone to the Beyond (presumably at sub-light speeds) and thence spread using FTL travel. The original settlement of this group is known as Nyjora; other human settlements in the Beyond include Straumli Realm and Sjandra Kei. In the Beyond, FTL travel is accomplished by making many small "jumps" across intervening space, and the efficiency of the drive increases the farther a ship travels from the galactic core. This reflects increases in both drive efficiency and the ship's automation's increased capacity as one moves outward, enabling the computation of longer and longer jumps. The Beyond is not a homogeneous zone -- many references are made to, e.g., the 'High Beyond' or the 'Bottom of the Beyond', depending on distance to the galactic core. These terms seem to refer to differences in the Zone itself, not just relative distance from the Core, but there are no obvious Zone boundaries within the Beyond the way there are between the Slow Zone and the Beyond, or between the Beyond and the Transcend. Whereas a ship that crosses from the Beyond to the Slow Zone or vice versa will experience a dramatic change in its capabilities, a ship in the Beyond which moves farther from the Core will experience a gradual increase in efficiency (assuming it has the technology to make use of it) until another major shift at the boundary to the Transcend. The Beyond is populated by a very large number of interstellar and intergalactic civilizations which are linked by a faster-than-light communication network, "the Net," sometimes cynically called the "Net of a Million Lies". The Net does connect with the Transcend, on the off-chance that one of the "Powers" that live there deigns to communicate, but has no connections with the Slow Zone, as FTL communication is impossible into or out of that Zone. In the novel, the Net is depicted as working much like the Usenet network in the early 1990s, with transcripts of messages containing header and footer information as one would find in such forums.
- The outermost layer, containing the galactic halo, is the Transcend, within which incomprehensible, superintelligent beings dwell. When a "Beyonder" civilization reaches the point of technological singularity, it is said to "Transcend," becoming a "Power." Such Powers always seem to relocate to the Transcend, seemingly necessarily, where they become engaged in affairs which remain entirely mysterious to those that remain in the Beyond.
An expedition from Straumli Realm, an ambitious young human civilization in the Beyond just inside the Transcend border, investigates a five-billion-year-old data archive in the Transcend that offers the possibility of unimaginable riches. The expedition's facility, called High Lab, is gradually compromised by a dormant super-intelligent entity (actually encoded within the archive) later known as the Blight. The Blight rapidly learns how to infiltrate and control the computer systems of High Lab, and even develops the ability to possess and control the living humans. The novel starts with an imaginative description of the evolution of this superintelligence through exponentially accelerating developmental stages, culminating in a transcendent, nigh-omnipotent power that is unfathomable to mere humans. Shortly before its final "flowering", the changes in a single minute of the Blight's life are said to exceed those of 10,000 years of human civilization.
Recognizing the danger of what they have awakened, the researchers at High Lab attempt to flee in two ships. Suspicious, the Blight discovers that one of the ships contains a data storage device in its cargo manifest; assuming it contains information that could harm it, the Blight destroys the ship. The second ship is allowed to escape, unharmed, as the Blight assumes that it is no threat; but later realizes that it actually held a "countermeasure", one of the few things in the universe that the Blight fears.
The ship lands on a distant planet with a medieval-level civilization of dog-like creatures dubbed "Tines", who live in packs as group minds. The ship is revealed to be a sleeper ship, carrying most of High Lab's children in "coldsleep boxes". The boxes are rapidly failing and the surviving adults begin unloading them, but are killed when one of two rival forces of Tines seize the ship. The faction that initially contacts the humans, led by a Tine known as Steel, kills the adults and destroys many of the coldsleep boxes. They also capture a boy named Jefri Olsndot, whom Steel intended on killing but eventually exploits in order to develop advanced technology (such as cannon and radio communication). Jefri's older sister, Johanna, is rescued by Pilgrim and Scriber, wandering Tines who bring her to the rival faction, led by Woodcarver. She is asked to help develop technology that could gain the upper hand in the impending war.
A distress signal from the sleeper ship eventually reaches "Relay", a major node in the galactic communications network. A benign transcendent entity (known as a "Power") named "Old One" contacts Relay, seeking information about the Blight and the humans who released it. Old One constructs a seemingly human man, Pham Nuwen, to act as its agent. Pham and Ravna Bergsndot – a human employee of Relay's owners, the wealthy Vrinimi Organization – trace the sleeper ship's signal to the Tines world. Vrinimi Org helps modify a vessel, the Out of Band II, to reach the Tines world and to investigate what the ship carried with it from the High Lab.
The Blight attacks Relay and Old One. Old One has given Pham the information necessary to activate the Blight Countermeasure subconsciously, a process known as godshatter (which will result in his death). Pham and Ravna escape Relay's destruction in the Out of Band II. After arriving at the Tines homeworld and allying with Woodcarver to defeat Steel, Pham initiates the Countermeasure, which extends the Slow Zone by thousands of light-years to enclose the Blight. This ends the threat of the Blight at the cost of wrecking thousands of uninvolved civilizations, causing trillions of deaths and potentially the extinction of several galactic races. The process strands the other humans on the Tines world, now in the depths of the "Slow Zone" where rescue by an advanced civilization is impossible.
Just before Pham dies, he realises that although his body is a reconstruction, the memories implanted by Old One are real. Vinge expands on Pham's backstory in A Deepness in the Sky.
A race of humanoids with colorful butterfly-like wings who attempt to use the chaos of the Blight to reestablish their waning hegemony. Despite their attractive, delicate appearance and initial demeanor, the Aprahanti are revealed to be an extremely fearsome and vicious species.
- Blight, The (Super-intelligence)
A representative being of a dormant super-intelligent entity group. Such super-intelligences can rapidly infiltrate and control the computer systems of less technologically advanced species, and even develop the ability to possess and control biological beings. Such super-intelligences are effectively immortal, nigh-omnipotent and transcendent.
Older race of inward dreamers, original inhabitants of Sjandra Kei.
All humans in the novel (except Pham) are descended from Nyjoran stock. Their ancestors were "Tuvo-Norsk" asteroid miners from Old Earth's solar system, which is noted as being on the other side of the galaxy in the Slow Zone. (Nyjora sounds similar to New Norwegian "New Earth".) One of the major human habitations is Sjandra Kei, three systems comprising roughly 28 billion individuals. Their main language is Samnorsk, the Norwegian term for a hypothetical unification of the Bokmål and Nynorsk forms of the language. (Vinge indicates in the book's dedication that several key ideas in it came to him while at a conference in Tromsø, Norway.)
- Skroders / Riders / Skroderiders
A sessile race of trees with fronds that are used for expression. 5 billion years ago, the Blight gave them wheeled mechanical constructs (skrodes) to move and as short-term memory, and the destruction of the Blight survived as their founding myth. The Blight is able to corrupt and operate the Riders via their Skrodes.
A canid race, each 'person' comprising a group mind of 4-8 individuals, connected by ultrasonic waves. Each 'soul' will last as long as it has enough members, potentially hundreds of years.
Vinge first used the concepts of "Zones of Thought" in a 1988 novella, "The Blabber", which occurs after Fire. Vinge's novel, A Deepness in the Sky (1999), is a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep set 20,000 years earlier and featuring Pham Nuwen. Vinge's The Children of the Sky, "a near-term sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep", set ten years later, was released in October 2011.
Vinge's former wife, Joan D. Vinge, has also written stories in the Zones of Thought universe, based on his notes. These include "The Outcasts of Heaven Belt", "Legacy", and a planned novel featuring Pham Nuwen.
Vinge's original title for the novel was "Among the Tines"; its actual title was suggested by his editors.
Awards and nominations
A Fire Upon the Deep shared the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Novel with Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. The book was nominated for the 1992 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 1993 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 1993 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
Jo Walton wrote: "Any one of the ideas in A Fire Upon the Deep would have kept an ordinary writer going for years. For me it’s the book that does everything right, the example of what science fiction does when it works. ... A Fire Upon the Deep remains a favourite and a delight to re-read, absorbing even when I know exactly what’s coming."
- "1993 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved September 26, 2009.
- Review of the annotated ebook edition of A Fire Upon the Deep at Slashdot
- Vinge, Vernor. A Fire Upon the Deep. "Relay was now the main intermediate to the Magellanics, and one of the few sites with any sort of link to the Beyond in Sculptor."
- Vinge, Vernor (1992). A fire Upon the Deep (1st mass market ed.). New York: Tom Doherty Associates. p. 62. ISBN 0812515285. LCCN 91-39020.
- p. 436
- p. 322
- "Interview with Vernor Vinge". Norwescon. October 12, 2009.
- Vinge, Joan D. (November 2008). "A letter to my readers".
- Interview: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, by Ernest Lilley, at SF Revu; published 26 February 2007; retrieved 18 May 2014
- "1992 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved September 26, 2009.
- The Net of a Million Lies: Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, review by Jo Walton, 2009.
- A Fire Upon the Deep title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Prologue and first nine chapters at Baen Ebooks
- A Fire Upon the Deep at Worlds Without End