I first became interested in Vinge a few months ago when I read one of his essays on the Singularity. So I decided it would be a good idea to give his fiction a try as well. I’m glad I did, good stuff this is, A Fire Upon the Deep, from 1992. This is a big, sweeping, intelligent, thought-provoking space opera set in a richly detailed and well-thought-out galaxy. There is lots of action as well as mind-blowing ideas; the perspective ranges from a threat of galactic proportions to medieval machinations on a single planet, and from characters of human-level intelligence to those who are almost god-like. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all tied together ingeniously.
One of the most amazing ideas, to me, was that of the Known Net, a galactic-level internet that is thousands of years old and connects millions of worlds and information archives. I loved the narrative device of using postings to various Known Net newsgroups to tell part of the story.
And then there are the Zones of Thought. Vinge’s galaxy is divided into several zones which have different effects on what kind of technology works there, how fast one can travel there, and on the potential of the species that live there. I don’t remember him giving a good scientific explanation for these (my one disappointment with the book), but they have something to do with the changing average density of matter as you move outward from the galactic core. Around the core is the area called the Unthinking Depths. Outside that is the Slow Zone. Further on is the Beyond. And outside that is the Transcend. Many species progress as far as they can in their “home” zone, and then migrate to a higher one. Once a species reaches the Transcend, its growth potential goes through the roof, allowing the chance to become a Power. Powers are beings so advanced they seem to possess almost god-like intelligence (although they can act only in limited ways in the lower zones). Everything in the novel is set against this backdrop of ever-increasing potential for species to become more than they are, to follow a steeply-rising curve in increasing intelligence (which is an implementation of the basic idea behind the Singularity).
Another noteworthy facet of the novel is the exploration of a species in which each individual member consists of around four to eight separate bodies, with the individual consciousness spread among them. Vinge does a fantastic job of examining the implications of this and surveying the different strengths and weaknesses such a species might have, and working all that into a plausible and intriguing society for them. As far as I’m concerned, some of the members of this species were the most interesting characters in the book. And if one wishes to look for it, there is probably some commentary there about the relative value of individuals versus groups or societies.
It took me forever to get through this book and its 600+ pages, but it was well worth it.