A Fire Upon the Deep/A Deepness In the Sky


Awards among the shallows:
Hugos considered as dyptich of semi-precious novels
Vernor Vinge and why the golden age of science fiction is still twelve

I stumbled across Vernor Vinge's Hugo-winning 1993 novel, A Fire Upon the Deep, and its 1999 prequel, A Deepness In the Sky, earlier this summer and was very pleased to do so. Not only were both novels Hugo-winners and Nebula Award nominees, but I had recently re-read the blogger Inverarity's very enthusiastic review of Fire, along with an equally laudatory write-up of Sky. To paraphrase Inverarity's question with which he closed the latter, since I am a science fiction fan, why hadn't I read them?

A Fire Upon The Deep
Tor Science Fiction (Feb 15 1993)
Paperback, 624 pages
ISBN-10: 0812515285
ISBN-13: 978-0812515282
A Deepness in the Sky
Tor Science Fiction (Jan 15 2000)
Paperback, 800 pages
ISBN-10: 0812536355
ISBN-13: 978-0812536355

I don't have a short answer to that question (a longer one — why not subscribe to my newsletter! — is in the works) but I can tell you there is no special reason you should. I don't want to single out Inverarity, whose reviews I read with considerable interest; my copies are festooned with quotes from the likes of David Brin, Analog, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jonathan Strahan).

Despite the accolades and the awards, both novels could serve as poster-children to explain why so many intelligent and literate people snicker and roll their eyes whenever they come across a book with a spaceship on the cover.

One can without shame "love" these books, but they are certainly not the "best" books of any year.

Though stand-alone novels set 20,000 or 30,000 years apart, Fire and Sky are linked through the person of Pham Nuyen, the hero of both books. That both stories have a hero is a clue to their common flaws, as well as their strengths.

The strengths lie mostly in Vinge's speculative cosmology and biology, the sort of Big Ideas that have made SF such fun at least since Olaf Stapledon decided that it was okay to play with billions of years in a novel.

First, the cosmology. Rather than reinvent the proverbial wheel, I quote from Inverarity's concise introduction and elegant description of the Zones of Thought universe.

For unknown reasons, the galaxy is divided into "zones" which affect the speed of everything from thought to light. Far down in the Unthinking Depths, intelligence is almost impossible. Earth was located in the Slow Zone, where nothing can travel faster than light and technology and sentience is correspondingly limited. Above the Slow Zone are the realms of the Beyond; the higher you go, the faster ships, computers, and minds can operate. And above the Beyond is the Transcend, where sapient races become hyper-evolved super-intellects known as Powers.

Some Fire ...

Fire starts with the accidental awakening of a Power, called the Blight, a kind of hyper-intelligence that might as well be a demon. Though we are told it is utterly beyond our understanding, as Vinge tells the tale the Blight seems not unlike a vengeful human sociopath in its motivations.

In any case. the Blight wreaks havoc across thousands of light years, destroying civilizations as a child might crush ant-hills on a sand-dune. Then, cosmic scale and High Concept established, Vinge more or less forgets them in favour of ... a thriller, half interstellar chase, half heroic fantasy.

The maguffin is the godshatter, a "counter-measure" designed to destroy the Blight (I forget by who or what; the details are fading), which has crashed-landed on a planet in the Slow Zone.

Enter Ravna Bergsndot, a human woman we are told is brilliant and decisive, but whom we see as mostly dull and passive, a nurse's aid rather than a surgeon. Ravna, along with her one-time lover with a Mysterious Past, the aforementioned Pham Nuyen. They are accompanied by two Riders, aliens evolved from something like seaweed. Bereft of much in the way of natural short-term memory, the Riders are each wedded to a skrode, a sort of Segway combined with a super-computer, which allows the Riders to function among other intelligent star-faring races. The origin of the skrodes is a billion year-old mystery tied up with the novel's resolution, so I'll say no more about that. The individual Riders in question are pair-bonded merchants, said to be friends of Ravna, but with as much character as any Star Trek red-shirt.


The Slow Zone planet is inhabited by the Tines, a canid species whose individuals are about as smart as a dog but which can combine in groups (or "packs") of up to six or seven and, using sound waves as a sort of poor man's telepathy, become long-lived and highly intelligent beings. Which is a neat concept but, as with the Riders, once past the biology, there is nothing remotely alien about the Tines.

Their societies are just like any number of faux-medieval kingdoms in any second- or third-rate epic fantasy, complete with kings and queens, the equivalent of good and evil wizards and advisers, with peasants and soldiers playing their standard parts like so many stick figures in an architect's drawing.

Vinge takes the easy route. Each "pack" has a dominant personality indistinguishable from an individual human's. Or rather, from a stock pulp-novel representation of an individual human.

Which leaves the reader with only an adventure story, a thriller, in which the plot is resolved through feats of physical daring-do, techno-hand-waving and by a villain too dumb not to declaim their nefarious schemes in front of witnesses

Hugo winner? Nebula nominee? Please!

Some Deep ...

A Deepness In the Sky is a tale of considerably smaller scope than its predecessor, set (mostly) in a single star system. The star itself is a mystery (never resolved, though Vinge offers hints). Dubbed the On/Off Star by the human visitors, it is an extreme form of variable star, lying dormant for the majority of every 250 years, but igniting for a few brief decades during which time its planet lies in the stars habitable zone.

Vinge does a very good job of making such an unlikely-sounding arrangement plausible (at least to this non-astrophysicist) and even made me believe the planet itself might well evolve life.

As with Fire, Vinge splits his tale in two streams, one from the viewpoint of the humans, the other from that of the dominant species below, an insect-like race dubbed Spiders by the humans, who are in an extreme hibernation beneath the snowed-out atmosphere of their planet as the humans arrive.

Those humans come in two flavours: the bat-shit evil Emergents, whose society is based on conquest and slavery, and the Qeng Ho, interstellar traders organized along near-utopian libertarian ideals.

By unlikely coincidence, fleets from both groups arrive to investigate the mysterious system at precisely the same time. They agree to cooperate, but (no surprise) treachery is on order. After a brutal battle, the Emergents come out on top, but ruling a crippled and vastly diminished combined fleet. With no way to get home, their only hope for survival is to hold on until the Spiders emerge from their hibernation and finish the job of developing a high-tech civilization.

In Vinge's human Slow Zone, there are only two sure things. That planetary civilizations are evanescent, inevitably collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions; and that space-going civilizations like the Qeng Ho are fundamentally dependent on the economies of scale that only planetary civilizations, with their populations of billions, can provide.

It is the dream of Pham Nuyen, who turns out to be the actual founder of the Qeng Ho (such is his genius!), that the merchants will become saviours, their mutually-beneficial trading missions become the solvent that breaks the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of civilizations. That the Qeng Ho, in other words, establish a galactic empire despite the problems of communication and control caused by light-speed barrier, thus saving uncounted and uncountable billions of lives.


The Emergents see empire the old fashioned way, a zero-sum game in which the most cold-blooded and brutal side wins. And they have a secret weapon, a mutated virus called mindrot that allows for a very special and effective form of mind control — absolute slavery, but with happy and motivated slaves. (It is to Vinge's considerable credit that he makes convincing Pham's temptation, to use the Emergent's mindrot in pursuit of his dream both credible and dramatic.)

The Emergent commander is Tomas Nau, a stone sociopath. The sort of blandly charming and urbane apparatchik one imagines represented Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany, a man of intelligence and guile, utterly ruthless and without empathy.

If all this sounds like the recipe for a pop-boiler, I haven't even mentioned Kiwi, the manic pixie girl and mechanical genius we are early on led to think will become a major protagonist but who, instead, spends most of the novel being raped, then mind-wiped by Nau. Nor have I mentioned Nau's sexually sadistic second-in-command, Ritser Brughel, who by book's end is literally running out of "partners" for his pleasures. (None of this, thank god, is made explicit, but the Girl in the Refrigerator motif is, again, a lazy way to remind the reader which side they should be cheering for.)

Meanwhile, on the planet below ...

The Spiders went into hibernation in the midst of a world war, their civilization(s) roughly equivalent to Earth's circa 1918. Funnily enough, even though the Spiders are — well — intelligent spiders, their economic, educational and political history and institutions are just like those of early 20th century Earth (well, like those of Europe and the United States around that time). Just like us, they have countries and churches and prejudices and wars.

But wait! There's more! The spiders not only have early-20th Century European-style imperialism, they have nuclear families, too!

And they too have one (count him! One!) super genius without whom there would be no novel. At least, no novel that didn't end with an Emergent conquest of the Spiders' planet and, in the long run, a galactic empire based on slaughter and slavery.

I said it's well done, and it is. I had a good time with both books, especially with A Deepness In the Sky. But that does not mean that both books are not fundamentally silly entertainments. Taken seriously, they are epic failures of imagination.

Yet the books are taken seriously. "HUGO AWARD WINNER — BEST NOVEL" is emblazoned on the cover of each volume. Which begs the question: what are science fiction readers (and Vinge's fellow writers; don't forget those Nebula nominations!) looking for when open a book or enter a theatre?

If A Fire Upon the Deep is something that fans consider one of the "best" novels science fiction has produced, it becomes clear that fans — or at least a significant subset of same — are not really interested in a literature of ideas, any more than in a literature of character, of politics or of metaphysics. The nominations and the awards suggest that far too many readers don't want their science fiction to push any of their boundaries at all. Not literary boundaries, not even scientific boundaries.

Space war fiction, in which the complexities of real life and real societies are reduced to the actions of one Good Guy and one Bad Guy, is pablum dressed up in the trappings of real food. Even Vinge's aliens are failures. The Tines and the Spiders are the literary equivalent of Mr. Spock's pointy ears: their biology signifies the Other, but Vinge does not offer even Star Trek's limited efforts to show just how different the half-Vulcan really was.

A Fire Upon the Deep beat out Red Mars for the Hugo (I haven't read Connie Willis' co-winner, so can't comment on its merits). Robinson's novel includes a half-dozen characters, none of whom sport an exoskeleton but each of which is more identifiably individual than any of Vinge's humans, spiders or tines.

Further, Red Mars features hard scientific extrapolation accompanied by rigorous social and political speculations, along with a story that, rather than follow a standard thriller plot, subvert, invert and finally throw away almost all of the genre trappings, most especially that favourite science fiction trope (and lazy writer's crutch), the Superman as Universal Solvent.

As I said at the outset, there is nothing terribly wrong with Vinge's novels. Enjoy your adventure stories when you're of a mind to — I certainly do! — but don't confuse the pleasures of the safe and familiar with the more complex pleasures of the risky and strange.


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Yep pretty much

I'm trying so hard to start this book but it's written so damn badly it fails to pique.

I've been reading the "classics" of SF and so far they're all either bad or just okay. No wonder why people roll their eyes at the genre.

I love SF and I want to be a SF writer, but sometimes you need to call an ugly dog an ugly dog.

The funny thing is that SF fans are typically bright folks who can see all the faults in the fiction but kinda ignore it or make excuses for it.

As for the awards - let's just say that between SFWA and the publishers the genre has been so thoroughly raped that it might not even survive the century.

Vinge's singularity has scared aware it's share of readers and writers too - all the big idea writers are writing fantasy and the other pop/flavor of the month subgenres like (insert punk).

Re: Yep pretty much

I'm curious to know what classics (or "classics") you've tried; and which you might think merit the term. I ask, because I'm of the opionion there are some good books out there.

Vinge's singularity has scared aware it's share of readers and writers too - all the big idea writers are writing fantasy and the other pop/flavor of the month subgenres like (insert punk).

Not all of them. As a fer'instance, Kim Stanley Robinson (of Red Mars trilogy fame) continues to write hard SF, and there's a new Peter Watts novel coming out soonish.

I haven't read Red Mars, so I

I haven't read Red Mars, so I can't compare AFUTD and ADITS to that, but while I don't think Vinge's novels expand any boundaries, I think they work excellently as science fiction novels. It's not really clear to me from this review why you think they're "silly," unless science fiction about aliens and space ships and space wars is inherently silly to you, which sounds more like a genre preference than a critique of these books in particular. (I think many space operas are silly and juvenile, but so are many books about vampires or young people coming of age, or middle-aged men have mid-life crises... )

The gimmick that explained the "familiarity" of the Spiders at the end didn't entirely convince me either, but I was more or less satisfied with it. I thought the Tines did come off as being pretty alien. Certainly there have been more alien aliens in sci-fi, and Vinge was deliberately making his relatable, but I don't think they are Star Trek latex mask aliens.

The point about the Tines' society is valid, though. As I pointed out in my review, The Children of the Sky, direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, is more of a fantasy epic than a SF novel. I still liked it, but it wasn't as awesome as its predecessors.

Read it! Read it!

The Mars books, I mean. I think you'll enjoy them on the one hand, and I'd be interested in reading your reaction on the other. But onwards.

... while I don't think Vinge's novels expand any boundaries, I think they work excellently as science fiction novels

Well yes, if you use the term "science fiction" to mean "anything with space ships". As I think my review implied, I'd call the books thrillers, with science fiction trappings. And yes, they're pretty good examples of same. But they sho9uldn't be winning any awards of the "best" of what SF had to offer in 1993 or 1999 (or whenever it was; faster to type a disclaimer than to look it up. Barely).

It's not really clear to me from this review why you think they're "silly," unless science fiction about aliens and space ships and space wars is inherently silly to you...

I thought the books were "silly" because they were thrillers. The trappings — the cosmoly, the aliens, the humans for that matter — were Potemkin shower-curtains giving the appearance of depth to what was, at heart, a couple of very long chase and fight stories.

At risk of being an arm-chair psycho-analyst, I suspect that if you examine your disenchantment with the latest book, you'll find the reasons for your disappointment exist in the first two books as well; you just got distracted by the striking set-designs of the first two.

I think you missed something

I think you missed something important about the spiders, something that you really only get at the end of the novel: how they are represented in the novel is not how they are in reality. What we see is the image that the human "translators" have given us, not how the spiders see themselves or what their polities really look like.

Re: I think you missed something

I didn't miss it, but I wasn't convinced by it. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I thought it a bit of a cop-out. On the one hand Vinge was giving us what I said he was — white folks in spider suits (all right, I didn't quite use that image; I should have) — while on the other assuring us that the Spiders were way more alien than we were being shown.

Which really seems to me that you're asking me to let Vinge have his proverbial cake, and gorge on it too.

Doing alien aliens is hard; but we should reserve the Hugo awards for writers who do it well.

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