Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review - A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge Tied
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Of the last twenty Hugo award winners only two have aliens appearing on screen and only one other has "aliens" in it at all. The first is A Fire Upon the Deep and the second is its sequel A Deepness in the Sky. One of the big reasons for this is an increase in the popularity of the Fermi paradox which is a result of Drake's Equation. In short, the idea is that given the scale of the galaxy and the lengths of time involved that the skies should be teaming with life and the obvious signs of it. Just a one million year head start on the other side of the galaxy should mean a galaxy packed to the brim. That's less than .1% of the time since life emerged from the oceans and that's ignoring the fact that there's no reason that life couldn't start expanding while the Earth was still forming.

Which doesn't mean that there isn't intelligent life elsewhere. There's many good answers to the paradox ranging from technology using civilizations are exceptionally rare to any species that could emerge from their solar system has to walk a mine field of resource problems to get off their own world (much as we're running into right now). But part of this is that authors who want to have a space opera universe feel a need to address these problems. Brin, for example, in Uplift has the Earth as a forgotten resource in a universe that ignores anything that isn't already in their book. Vinge on the other hand comes up with one of the biggest, most mind-blowingly incredible ideas to justify it and that justification is at the core of A Fire Upon the Deep.

In short Vinge postulates that the laws of the universe are not constant as they appear to us. In particular the speed of light varies dramatically getting slower and slower as you approach the center of the galaxy. But this isn't as simple as people just go faster at the galactic edges, the speed of light limits the processing abilities of thinking machines including organic brains. There is a boundry which when you cross it the mathematics of hyperspace travel become possible and you can break the speed of light. At the heart of the galaxy are the unthinking depths where things go so slowly that minds break down while at the far end things progress so quickly that godlike intelligences are created and burn out in a few years. The earth lies in between these extremes but at some point we emerge from our slow moving section of the galaxy to find a universe overrun with life that has a written history going back millions of years.

When A Fire Upon the Deep starts a group of human researchers have found instructions for creating a transcendent AI in a forgotten ruin. Creating it unleashes a sentient plague that overwrites all thought at the edges of the galaxy and unlike other AI's it is stable, seeking only to expand and will not burn out. A few of these scientists escape with a device that can contain it but their ship is damaged and they flee to a planet that has just emerged from the slow areas; a location where the plague cannot easily reach. Meanwhile another AI has discovered the spreading plague and recruited some humans and sentient plants to retrieve the device before all of the advanced civilizations in the galaxy are absorbed. And if that's not enough the researchers have encountered a medieval civilization of pack animals that exist as a sentient network and become involved in their power struggles.

I haven't even touched on half of the fun things that Vinge throws into his book. His training as a computer scientist shows through as the galaxy has faster than light communication but very little bandwidth for it and the book is filled with USENET-style news posts from people trying to get a grip on the situation.

So there's a lot of really big ideas in here but how's the rest of the book. It's fairly well written space opera with some especially interesting aliens. The network aliens are very alien with a particularly distinct, and fragmented, point of view but the plants are equally interesting since they lack a long term memory and have to rely on a device to remember things for them. Vinge maintains these distinct voices and uses chapters that have a very tight point of view that switches characters. Those points of view are a problem when reading, though, since they are so unique that it can take readers quite a while to grasp the aliens.

Sadly the humans aren't nearly as interesting as the aliens. The children of the researchers who are the focus of the planet bound action are essentially innocents blown by fate. The humans trying to get to them have token characterization ("She's a homesick librarian, he's a time lost spacer who may be the puppet of godlike AI; how can this odd couple ever get along?") but they won't stick in your mind.

Really the best thing about A Fire Upon the Deep is the incredible concepts that Vinge throws around and makes them feel reasonable and plausible. It's those big ideas that will grab your brain and refuse to let it go. He follows up those big ideas but being a decent writer whose prose never excites me but it works well enough. It's yet another space opera but it is the single best space opera I've ever read.