A Fire Upon the Deep is a fantastic hard science fiction novel from retired Computer Scientist Vernon Vinge. The novel uses a dual narrative to explore different forms of conciousness from two widely different perspectives.
The first narrative is mostly a classic space adventure story. Two humans and two friendly aliens are racing through the galaxy in order to prevent a catastrophe. The second narrative, which is split between two siblings, is closer to a medieval political drama.
The narratives collide at the end in an apocalyptic conflagration. And while the climax was entertaining, I ultimately found it unsatisfying. I much more interested in what was happening at the galactic level, and the parochial concerns on the medieval planet proved to be just that, and held no deep significance outside the threat to the characters. And while there were some interesting philosophical differences between the factions, these took a back seat to political machinations.
Concepts and Features.
The cornerstone concept of the novel were the different forms of intelligence. Single organism (human), machine assisted, small group, hive mind, transcendent, and super transcendent intelligence all play a role in the narrative. The concept of zones of thought also plays a pivotal role in the narrative, as well as the resolution of the crisis in a satisfying way. This was my favorite aspect of the novel.
The technology of the universe was cleverly described; leaving out details that would date the novel to the late 80’s. The description of computation in the future was satisfying. The difficulty of trafficking massive amounts of data (and translating through multiple language paths) is a reoccurring theme. The value and difficulty of network communication (with the added super-luminal component) is expressed in an organic way.
There is an interesting social interesting parallel with the current state of the modern internet. The network is nicknamed “the web of a million lies”. There are people on the net that are willing to lie, shout down opposition, and use inflammatory language to achieve their goal. We would recognize these people has trolls today.
The Galaxy is portrayed as old, and heavily populated. There are many intelligent species, and have been many generations of species that predate humanity. The different species for confederations, gone to war, developed new systems, destroyed those systems, and constructed new societies in the wreckage. Multiple planets have gone through interregnum. Most of the human colonies have gone through such a period where they recreated the industrial revolution moving through a medieval tech period, before re-achieving interstellar flight. This depth of history escallates the narrative stakes.
Ultimately, I would recommend this to any hard science fiction fan. Especially one interested in intelligence and computing. The narrative isn’t innovative or engaging enough for me to recommend this to everyone.