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A Fire Upon the Deep  
A Fire Upon the Deep.bookcover.jpg
Author Vernor Vinge
Cover artist Boris Vallejo
Country United States
Language English
Series Zones of Thought series
Genre(s) Hard science fiction
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date April 1992
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 391 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-312-85182-0
OCLC Number 24671893
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 20
LC Classification PS3572.I534 F57 1992
Preceded by A Deepness in the Sky

A Fire Upon the Deep is a science fiction novel written by Vernor Vinge, an award-winning 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).[1]

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.

Contents

Plot summary

A human civilization high in the Beyond (see below for an explanation of the Zones of Thought) dispatches an expedition to a planet in the low Transcend, having learned of a massive 5-billion year old archive of data there which had been off the Known Net for all that time. It offers the possibility of unthinkable riches for the ambitious young civilization of Straumli Realm, and an expedition of archaeologist programmers is dispatched to open the archive and discover its secrets.

The expedition's precautions are insufficient, however, and their facility, known as High Lab, is gradually compromised by a dormant super-intelligent entity similar to the Powers that develop in the Transcend, yet far more stable and able to exert influence in the Beyond. Initially referred to by other civilizations as the "Straumli Perversion" and later as "the Blight", the entity has the capability to rapidly infiltrate and control computer systems and biological beings. The entity persuades the team to create machines and activate programs they do not understand nor can guard against. Meanwhile, hidden from the strengthening Blight, two programs, copies of the minds of two expedition members, become self-aware and lurk in the facility's local network. Unable to stop the Blight, they settle instead for carrying out a risky scheme to activate the countermeasure against the Blight that is included in the archive.

Realizing the danger of what they unintentionally unleashed, the members of the expedition attempt to flee High Lab, loading two transport ships with as many of the expedition members as possible and disguising the ships' departure as a routine trip for supplies. Suspicious, the Blight discovers that one of the ships lists in its cargo manifest a data storage device, which it assumes contains information that could harm it. The Blight immediately seizes control of High Lab, instantly killing the remaining colonists, and uses a communications laser to board and destroy the ship holding the data device; the second ship escapes, but the Blight dismisses it, believing the threat to have been averted. In reality, the second ship holds the true countermeasure against the Blight and flees deep into the Bottom of the Beyond.

The former colonists land their sleeper ship, with a cargo of children in suspended animation, on a planet with a medieval-level civilization of dog-like creatures (the Tines) who exist as small packs of individuals. Each individual consciousness is generated by the pack compilation of several Tines, who coordinate their thoughts via high-frequency sound. A single Tine is about as smart as a clever dog; two to three can think as well as a young human child; four to six is the standard and possess human or greater intelligence and self-awareness and personalities; under normal circumstances packs that are much larger degrade into barely-coherent mobs, though a rational pack of eight is not unheard of and one such pack plays a large role. Other configurations are possible for specialized roles. Examples include long strung-out sentry lines and garrisoned slave teams.

The cargo ship carried most of the High Lab's children in "coldsleep boxes" - boxes which induce suspended animation. The boxes are rapidly failing, and so the surviving adults begin unloading them onto the hospitable near-Earth world they had landed on. However, they are quickly ambushed and fall victim to a long-lived conflict between two Tine nations who fight over the ship. The group that initially contacts the humans, the Flenserists, led by a Tine named Steel (the protégé of the charming but sinister genius Flenser, so named for his cruel research on other Tines), ambushes and kills the human adults and destroys many of the coldsleep boxes, intending to gain an advantage. The other group is led by the Woodcarver, so named for the artistic talent that first made her famous.

Flenser had developed a small but powerful kingdom that specialized in subverting and taking over neighboring countries. To escape assassination by a mob after a failed attempt to take over such a country, Flenser's component bodies had been dispersed into two or more packs, one of which is Tyrathect, whose other members had previously been part of a naive Flenserist school teacher; it is later learned that Flenser's other members had not escaped. Tyrathect makes her roundabout way back to Flenser's stronghold, traveling in the company of the packs Peregrine Wrickwrackrum and Scriber Jaqueramaphan. They observe the ambush of the humans. The pilgrim and the spy resolve to steal the only survivor they see: Johanna Olsndot, a girl about 12 years old. Because of the return of Flenser, the troops are distracted, and the two manage to escape with Johanna aboard a Flenserist boat. Unbeknownst to them, Johanna's younger brother Jefri also survived, but remains in the hands of the Flenserists. The two groups begin frantically attempting to gain their respective human's trust, and exploit them to develop cannon and other technology. The Woodcarvers begin with the assistance of an educational databank. Lord Steel's group begins developing radio and superior cannon with the help of Jefri and his communications with the outside world through the ship, as well as a well-placed spy in Woodcarver's camp. Each sibling is unaware of the other's survival and alliance with opposing groups.

The ship had been transmitting through its FTL ultrawave apparatus ever since it landed, and its message eventually reaches Relay, thanks to Ravna Bergsndot and the Old One. Ravna Bergsndot was working as the only human intern at the Vrinimi Organization, a vast, ancient, and wealthy communication and information provider (conceptualized as much like an ISP of the late 1980s or early 1990s) based in the system of Relay. Relay is so named because it is offset from the galactic plane in the Middle Beyond and so has a clear line of sight on many different and far-flung systems; it serves as a relay for a vast amount of Known Net traffic - somewhere around 2%.[2]

A benign Power called "Old One" (because it is known to be over 10 years old; Powers rarely maintain contact with the Beyond for more than a few years) makes contact, seeking information about the Blight and especially about humans in general who had released the Blight. It asks for Ravna to accompany its vessel back to the Transcend, but Ravna refuses, wary of the Power's intentions. The Vrinimi Organization supports her, even though the Old One was offering to set up an oracle for them. So instead it reconstructs a seemingly human man, Pham Nuwen, from a frozen body collected by a Slow Zone probe and stockpiled at Relay by Vrinimi Organization (along with parts from other bodies) and infuses him with some memory of his former life, to act as its remote agent. The Old One helps in the search for escapees from the High Lab, eventually finding Jefri's signal. It designs a ship, the Out of Band II, designed to travel to the bottom of the Beyond and even handle limited travel in the Slow Zone, to reach Jefri and investigate what the ship carried with it from the High Lab.

Relay and Old One fall victim to a double surprise attack by the Blight; Relay is attacked by a vast armada. The Blight is forced to engage Old One in a very personal way, and Old One steals information about the Blight, and apparently discovers its weakness. Before dying, Old One downloads as much of itself as can fit into Pham, providing him with subconscious instructions to activate Countermeasure.

During the attack, Pham and Ravna are in the company of Blueshell and Greenstalk, intelligent plants of an eons-old trading race known as Skroderiders, who use sophisticated personal vehicles ("skrodes") to enhance both their mobility and cognitive capabilities (Skroderiders have an almost complete lack of short-term memory). All four escape Relay's destruction in the Skroderiders' ship Out of Band II, which had previously been chartered and equipped to rescue the human refugees. They then follow Jefri's signal to the Tines' planet.

While en route, they narrowly escape an alliance of anti-human military fleets, the "Alliance for the Defense," which not only knows that humans are responsible for the Blight's reanimation, but also accuse them of acting as its agents. After docking at the world of Harmonious Repose for necessary repairs to the Out of Band II, the group learns that the core human civilization of Sjandra Kei has been annihilated by the Alliance. Shortly afterwards, it is discovered that Skroderiders are the Blight's true puppets; skrodes had been designed by the Blight billions of years previously to create a race of sleeper agents.

After finally arriving at Tines' world and allying with Woodcarver to defeat Steel, Pham initiates the "Countermeasure," a nanotechnological fungus-like substance/device of Transcend capabilities and design. Countermeasure drastically alters the boundaries of the zones of thought in that sector of the galaxy, causing the Slow Zone to surge and penetrate into part of the Transcend. The massive shift envelops and destroys the Blight; however, this also kills Pham and strands the other humans on the Tines' world, now in the depths of the Slow Zone. An included Known Net message estimates that this event thrusts thousands of uninvolved civilizations into an environment where much of their technology no longer functions (a situation analogous to an Earth where electricity ceases to exist), causing trillions of deaths.

Notable elements

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Zones of Thought

Vinge has often expressed an opinion that realistic fiction set after the development of superhuman intelligence — an event that he calls the Singularity and considers all but inevitable — would necessarily be too strange for a human reader to enjoy, if not impossible for a human writer to create. To sidestep the issue, he turns the Singularity sideways from time into space, postulating that the galaxy has been divided into "zones of thought":

  • The Unthinking Depths are the lowest level, containing the galactic core. Even the simplest organic or machine intelligences function poorly, if at all. Space travel is nearly impossible, requiring big, dumb vessels with neolithic automation and massive redundancy. These properties make exploration of this zone problematic.
  • The Slow Zone is the next layer. FTL travel and communications do not function, dependent as they are on some physical property of the universe which changes at the boundary between the Beyond and the Slow Zone. Intelligence above the level of human-equivalent is not possible. Any highly advanced artificial cognitive systems do not function well, if at all. Earth is deep within the Slow Zone.
  • The Beyond is where the majority of the action takes place in A Fire Upon the Deep. It is loosely divided into three sub-zones: the Bottom (where Tines' World is located) near the Slow Zone, the Middle (where Relay and Sjandra Kei were located), and the Top (where Straumli Realm was located) near the Transcend. FTL travel and communication are possible, though the latter can be prohibitively expensive, often requiring planet-sized transceiver arrays. Antigravity and mind-machine interfaces, along with many other technological advances, work in the Beyond. The limits to organic and machine intelligence vary smoothly from the boundary of the Slow Zone to that of the Transcend.
  • The Transcend is where super-intelligences known as Powers reside. Here there are no limits on nanotechnology, FTL travel is very fast (relative to the Beyond), FTL communications bandwidth is cheap, and there are no limits to organic or machine intelligences or meldings between the two. Indeed, many of the Powers are a single consciousness created from an entire civilization, although it is implied that individuals may also become Powers on their own. The Powers have passed through the technological singularity and their behavior is usually beyond human comprehension. They routinely create intelligent species from scratch, perform near-miraculous feats of engineering on scales both atomic and cosmic, and have been known to employ technologies that warp the very nature of reality - the Countermeasure to the Blight is the obvious example, and it has been proposed that the Zones themselves are the product of a similar technology. They regard involvement in the affairs of races in the Beyond in much the same way that humans would care about the competition for alpha male status amongst a pack of wild animals. Powers rarely maintain contact with the Beyond for more than a few years; it is not known whether they merely lose interest, die, go elsewhere, or transcend again to an even more incomprehensible level of being.

It is mentioned later in the novel that the Zones are gradually receding towards the galaxy's core. Before the Countermeasure was activated and caused the massive shift of the Slow Zone, it was estimated that in several billion years the Transcend would envelop the entirety of the galaxy, as the Unthinking Depths, Slow Zone, and Beyond shrink inwards. It is speculated by the characters that beings with even greater capabilities than the Powers created the Zones and the Countermeasure, possibly to prevent the proliferation of destructive entities like the Blight.

Scandinavian influences

The name of the starship Lynsnar literally means "lightning fast" in Norwegian and Danish. Many other names have a Scandinavian sound to them. Arne is a common male name in Scandinavia. Most of the humans' surnames have the suffix -sndot, suggestive of a blending of the common Scandinavian -son (or -sen) and -dottir; this form may have developed during the "Age of Princesses" on Nyjora , the Slow Zone world from which humans reached the Beyond. Nyjora resembles the Norwegian pronunciation of the phrase "Nyjorda", which translates into "The New Earth". "Samnorsk", the language of the Straumli Realm and its Perversion, was the name of a constructed language that attempted to unite the two different Norwegian national languages, Nynorsk and Bokmål between 1917 and 1966. In the foreword, Vinge mentions his 1988 trip to Oslo, the capital of Norway, and Tromsø, an Arctic Norwegian university town that hosted a computer conference that year.

Another Scandinavian reference is the story of the Aniara, referring to Harry Martinson's poem Aniara, also referenced in the foreword as the Aniara Society, the Oslo-based science fiction-fandom club that hosted his visit to the capital.

Related works

A prequel to this book was subsequently written, A Deepness in the Sky, set twenty thousand years earlier in the "Slow Zone" near Earth, detailing the earlier adventures of Pham Nuwen. Vinge's short story "The Blabber" takes place hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years after Fire though it was written first and contains several contradictions with the books. As of early 2009, Vinge is working on a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, set approximately ten years after the events of the original novel.[3]

Awards and nominations

Title translations

  • Chinese (simplified):"深渊上的火"
    • 四川科学技术出版社(Sichuan Science and Technology Press), 2005: ISBN 9787536454583
  • Croatian: "Vatra nad dubinom"
    • Algoritam, 2002: ISBN 953-220-066-5
  • Dutch: "Dagen des Oordeels"
    • Meulenhoff, 1993: ISBN 90-290-4169-2
  • Finnish: "Linnunradan ääret"
    • Like, 2008: ISBN 978-952-01-0089-6
  • French: "Un feu sur l'abîme"
    • Robert Laffont, (31 octobre 1994): ISBN 2221076761 / ISBN 978-2221076767
    • Livre de Poche, (1998): ISBN 2253072087 / ISBN 978-2253072089
  • German: "Ein Feuer auf der Tiefe"
    • Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 1995: ISBN 3-453-07986-8.
  • Hebrew: "אש על פני תהום"
    • Keter Publishing 2007: דאנאקוד 692-48
  • Italian: "Universo incostante"
    • Editrice Nord, 1993: ISBN 88-429-0738-3
    • Editrice Nord, Collana Cosmo Biblioteca, 2007: ISBN 9788842915102
  • Polish: "Ogień nad otchłanią"
    • Wydawnictwo Prószyński i s-ka, 1998: ISBN 83-7180-678-7
  • Romanian: "Foc în adânc"
    • Editura Nemira, 2008: ISBN 978-973-143-149-9
  • Russian: "Пламя над бездной"
    • AST, 2001: ISBN 5-17-005186-7; 2003: ISBN 5-237-03425-X/ISBN 5-17-002594-7
    • AST, Yermak, 2003 (two editions): ISBN 5-17-020474-4/ISBN 5-9577-0665-5, ISBN 5-17-019900-7/ISBN 5-9577-0663-9.
  • Serbian: "Plamen nad ponorom"
    • Laguna, 2007: ISBN 978-86-7436-572-4[5]
  • Spanish: "Un fuego sobre el abismo"
    • Ediciones B, 1994: ISBN 84-406-4469-8.

References

  1. ^ a b c d "1993 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1993. Retrieved 2009-09-26.  
  2. ^ "But in the current era there was one instance of "Relay" known above all others. That instance appeared in the routing list of two percent of all traffic across the Known Net. Twenty thousand light-years off the galactic plane, Relay had an unobstructed line of sight on thirty percent of the Beyond, including many star systems right at the bottom, where starships can make only one light-year per day." pg 63
  3. ^ http://www.sffaudio.com/?cat=607
  4. ^ "1992 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1992. Retrieved 2009-09-26.  
  5. ^ Vernor Vindž: Plamen nad ponorom; Prevela (Translation by): Bojana Ilić; Naslov originala (Title of original): Vernor Vinge: A Fire upon the Deep; Translation copyright 2007 za srpsko izdanje, Laguna (- for the Serbian edition, Laguna); Ilustracija na koricama (Cover art): Boris Vallejo; Beograd, Laguna 2007; ISBN 978-86-7436-572-4

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