Tag Archives: A Fire Upon the Deep

Deepness proves Vinge a master of quality space opera

The Qeng Ho fleet was the first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it.

Title: A Deepness in the Sky
Author: Vernor Vinge
Year: 1999
Rating: 5/5 stars

deepnessThis novel is set in the same universe (the “Zones of Thought”) as Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and although it’s not necessary to have read that previous novel in order to appreciate this one, that is still the easiest angle of approach, so that’s where I’ll start (and hey, you should read them both anyway, since they’re both fantastic). In Fire we meet the character of Pham Nuwen, who is actually a sophisticated recreation of the original Pham Nuwen, constructed by one of the super-advanced Powers from the Beyond. This artificial being has the personality and memories of the actual living Nuwen, and throughout the book we get tantalizing glimpses into his long-ago life as part of the Qeng Ho trading culture in the Slow Zone. A Deepness in the Sky takes us back to that time, some twenty thousand years earlier, and lets us share some of the exploits of the real Pham Nuwen. And once again, Vinge scores a hit, delivering a modern space opera classic.

As the story opens, Nuwen is in hiding after being betrayed and toppled from his position of power many years ago, just when he was on the brink of achieving his greatest dream — the dream of a network capable of holding humanity together throughout the galaxy without the periodic dark ages it has been accustomed to. Now, after a long and massive search, one of his former captains has tracked him down, and convinces him to join an expedition that offers unique and unprecedented opportunities for profit. Astronomers had long known of the OnOff star, a mysterious stellar object that goes dark for 215 out of every 250 years, but no one had ever investigated up close. But it has suddenly become urgent, since radio signals have been picked up from a planet orbiting OnOff — signals suggesting the world is home to the first alien species ever discovered by humanity.

But the Qeng Ho are not the only ones to recognize the opportunities of the situation. Another of humanity’s countless long-separated branches happens to dwell near enough to send an expedition. The Emergents, as they call themselves, see OnOff and the alien civilization there differently than the Qeng Ho — as a resource to be ruthlessly exploited, rather than as a potential trading partner. The rigidly authoritarian and dictatorial Emergent culture is the antithesis of the libertarian, free-market-loving Qeng Ho, and as the two race toward their common destination, a clash of civilizations is inevitable. But the Emergents have a secret weapon to use in that clash: a certain virus found on their homeworld, tamed over centuries, that has profound effects on the human brain. In a weaponized form called “mindrot” it is a crippling disease that shuts down higher mental functions. In a different form called “Focus,” it’s a tool for turning a human being into a living computer. The Focused are like idiot savants, concentrating their entire mental life on their one specialty (navigation, translation, physics, or whatever) with nothing left over for anything else, even simple human interaction. These genius zombies are loyal to their creators (without enough individual will to resist), and are the backbone of Emergent power. And even as the Qeng Ho face the most ruthless adversaries they’ve ever met, Nuwen faces a temptation: is Focus the answer to his long-held dream of a unified human galaxy?

But there’s more going on here. Just as its companion novel does, A Deepness in the Sky tells half of its story from the perspective of an alien species. The Spiders (so called by the Qeng Ho for their general arachnid appearance) have a unique culture shaped by the unusual circumstances of their environment. On a planet that only gets significant sunlight for 35 out of every 250 years, survival through the Long Dark is paramount. While the world goes cold and the atmosphere itself freezes and snows to the ground, the Spiders hibernate in their deepnesses (caverns dug in the ground) awaiting the next cycle of light and warmth, when their society will flourish again. Or, I should say, societies; for the Spiders are split into different nations and factions with a range of social and political beliefs, and a willingness to wage war for them. Just as the humans in space above battle over their various ideals, so it goes for the Spiders below. Those two arenas of conflict, and their interactions and resolutions, are what this novel is all about.

The book is full of familiar human issues (freedom vs. authoritarianism, liberalism vs. conservatism, Big Brother-style surveillance, the costs and benefits of progress) played out in another part of the galaxy, and played out very well. From the machinations of the Emergents, to the history of Nuwen and the Qeng Ho, to the mystery of the OnOff star itself, every part of this book makes for an intensely satisfying read. Vinge is one of the best at this sort of novel, and I really hope he writes more in this universe, since the ending left me eager for more.

The two Vernor Vinges (the short and the long of it)

vingestoriesI have read several of Vernor Vinge’s novels and found their quality to range anywhere from “good” to “outstanding.” Indeed, over the time period I read those books, I’ve come to regard him as a solid and reliable author, perhaps even a growing favorite. So it seemed like a no-brainer to get this 2001 volume, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, containing nearly every story he had published up to that time. After all, if he’s that great a writer, how could I go wrong? Surely there must be some decent stories, and maybe some real gems, residing inside this 464-page tome of tales, right? Well, umm, as it turns out…… no, not really. I honestly can’t think of another story collection or anthology that I was more thoroughly unimpressed with than this one. And I take no pleasure in saying this, believe me.

The thing is, I know Vinge can write, damn it; A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the finest space operas ever written, if you ask me, and his other novels aren’t too shabby either. That’s why I’m at a total loss in explaining or understanding this. When it comes to short stories, it’s as if every ounce of writing talent Vinge possesses flew out the window. I mean, a lot of these stories are downright ineptly written, and I can’t figure how they ever got published (a few were even bought by Campbell, which surprises me). It strikes me that with Vinge’s writing, the rule is: the longer the better. There’s a clear (at least clear to me) rise in the quality level as he goes from short story to novelette/novella to medium-length novel to longer novel. And so, the longer pieces of this collection, those around novella length, are the best of the lot — although I cautiously use “best” as a relative term.

The single piece that was of any interest to me was “The Blabber.” This is one of those longer stories I mentioned, and it was Vinge’s first foray into his “Zones of Thought” universe, the setting for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. It was written before either of those novels, although the events take place in a later time. While not that great a story in its own right, it was interesting to read the first instantiation of some of the ideas and characters that I would later fall in love with in Fire.

Similarly, this collection also contains Vinge’s novella “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” the first example of the near-future world that would later become the basis for Rainbows End. The same technological and social extrapolations are present, and for that this novella deserves some credit. However, “Fast Times,” unlike Rainbows End, fails to place those extrapolations in the context of anything approaching an interesting plot, and it ends up being just a day in the life of some junior high school kids, a showcase for their technological savvy. My advice: skip the story, read the book.

There were a couple more “from the same world” stories. One was “The Ungoverned,” set in the world of The Peace War. I thought that novel was pretty good; I thought this story was a complete waste of the paper it’s printed on. And “The Barbarian Princess” is a companion to Grimm’s World. I haven’t read that one, so I admit I skimmed over this story pretty quickly, but nothing about it inspired the barest flicker of my interest.

And none of the rest of these numerous stories did anything for me either. A story should have at least one thing going for it, whether it’s character development, or an exciting plot, or a fascinating idea to explore. Most of these stories failed on all counts, consisting of characters I didn’t care about, engaged in events that seemed ridiculous, in the service of ideas I thought were dull and uninspiring.

So, great novels and lousy short stories, from the same author? Can someone explain this to me? Are there really two Vinges, one doing the short writing and the other the longer projects? Did we gain an extra Vinge from some alternate universe, like in that old Star Trek episode with the evil Spock? If so, I hope the one writing the novels sticks around a long time, because I’ll keep on reading those. But I think I’m done with the short stuff.

Narrative hooks: some favorites

First a definition, courtesy of wikipedia:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep reading on. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally is the opening sentence.

I’ve been thinking for quite some time of sharing some of my favorite narrative hooks from science fiction novels; but through a combination of laziness, forgetfulness, and being busy with other things (mostly lots of reading), the idea has been sitting on a back burner, undeveloped. However, I recently got an inspirational kick in the posterior when I read an io9 article about Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction.” Some of the examples in that article are good ones, some not so good, but then that’s just my opinion. A great hook for one person may be totally boring to another. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite hooks from science fiction (and fantasy). And by “favorite” I don’t mean judged by some abstract literary measurement; I simply mean that they worked for me. They drew me in and made me feel compelled to keep reading, and that always helps make the reading experience more pleasurable. I won’t restrict myself to single sentences, as the io9 article did, because a good hook usually takes at least several sentences to develop. So……

I mentioned this one a while back in my review of Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That works beautifully to capture the reader’s curiosity. What is a Beanstalk and why is it in Kenya? Why is this one person following the other person, and what could be so important about this that it should involve death? Was the death justified (morally, legally) or not? It sure kept me reading.

Here’s the beginning of one of my all-time favorite novels, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg:

I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself.

That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes. I look at it on the page, and I recognize the hand as my own — narrow upright red letters on the coarse gray sheet — and I see my name, and I hear in my mind the echoes of the brain-impulse that hatched those words. I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Incredible.

When I first read those words I had no idea it was a science fiction novel, nor any idea who Silverberg was. It was just some book I found in a box from a yard sale. But once I opened it and read those first words, I was hooked. I just had to know why this Darival character was shocked at himself for what he wrote; I had to know why it was “incredible” to him.

Another very effective hook comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nice Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

That first sentence is a pretty good hook in its own right. But the more you read on, the better it gets. The first several pages constitute a fantastic hook for the novel, but I’m not going to quote that much.

All of the above examples depend on creating an air of mystery. Another way to go is to set up a grand flamboyant atmosphere, as Alfred Bester does in The Stars My Destination:

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…. but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…. but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…. but nobody loved it.

It can’t be an accident that he uses the word “fascinating” in there, because the whole effect of those lines is to fascinate me and make me want to learn more about this future time.

Then there’s the deep and/or philosophical and/or metaphysical sort of opening, as for example in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep:

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

Wow! If even the omniscient viewpoint can’t handle what’s about to be described, then I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna blow my mind.

So there you have some examples of the kinds of opening lines that hook me. What hooks you?

Vinge: fiery and deep

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.