bookrev: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge is in the list of SF/Fantasy novelists with the most Hugo/Nebula awards. Yet I had not yet read any of his works. This is my first; it is excellent and imaginative space opera, with at least three alien species that are well thought through and intertwines micro and macro plot elements.
The macro element involves a Transcendent being called “The Blight” which begins absorbing worlds (apparently through their technologies) after being accidentally released by a human expedition. The Blight annihilates the human expedition and their home world, except for one freighter which escapes to crash land on a planet. Transcendence is only explained in adequate vagueness, but my assumption is that it refers to an AI gaining self-awareness and self-control.
The two adults on the freighter are quickly killed by the natives, a dog-like species that has a pack mind, usually living in groups of four that can communicate mentally. The world is mostly low-tech, as the packs cannot get close to other packs without the thoughts of the other interfering. The leader of one of the packs takes Jefri, the youngest of the two kids, after killing the two adults, while am independent traveling pack named Pilgrim takes the older girl Johanna to the Woodcarver, Queen of a more sympathetic and forward thinking group of packs.
The freighter happens to carry a Countermeasure to the Blight, which is why the humans who unleashed the Blight sent it away. Ravna, a human librarian, and a couple of Skroderiders (tree-like beings planted in movable trays that also contain memory and CPU) hear the distress signal from Jefri’s ship, and start an expedition to reach them. The expedition takes on a new urgency when the Blight attacks the Relay station where Ravna and the others are outfitting their vessel. The Blight overruns Relay, and another transcendent being known as Old One, who pushes as much of itself into a human-like creation called Pham, who accompanies Ravna’s expedition.
The micro part of the plot, set against the macro of the Blight enveloping the known world, is the fight between the two separate factions of pack animals, one “good” that has Joanna, and one “evil” that has Jefri. Both kids think the other has died.
The three (and perhaps four) alien species are the Transcendent beings (Blight and Old One), the pack (called Tines), the Skroderiders, and possibly Pham (human-like but made by Old One). The descriptions and scenes involving the Tines and Skroderiders are well written alien descriptions, giving them personality and their own set of difficulties to overcome. Pham is described in human detail, though he occasionally is taken over by the remnants of “Old One” and becomes something other than human. The Transcendent beings are left fuzzy and vague, which is probably just as well…they are hard to describe.
The other interesting and somewhat difficult to understand part of the novel is the separation of the galaxy into Zones, where technology and network transmission act and are used differently. I could never fathom if this was because of the way the galaxy is constructed, or if it were an human/alien construct; but it plays a large role in several parts of the novel.
A long story, where the end comes in just a few short pages. But it is well paced, and picks up speed quite a bit when the Blight starts destroying known worlds.
I have two other of Mr. Vinge’s novels on my list, and this one has me looking forward to reading them.