by John Clute
It is never the same river twice. The first edition of Vernor Vinge’s great long-limbed space opera, A Fire upon the Deep, which I and others reviewed excitedly in early 1992, may have been reprinted without a change ever since—the edition you are holding now may have been reset but is the same text—but right now, in July 2019, I have just read, or reread, something that feels hugely different to the mind’s eye. The kaleidoscope has been shaken, and something like a clean, pure, laser-bright blast from the past has just transfigured my summer. I think A Fire upon the Deep may be better today than it ever was.
There are reasons for this. No reader is the same after thirty years, of course; those of us old enough to have forgotten most of what we learned have still learned much. But it’s more than that. SF itself has changed over these three decades, from the Indian Summer of its early 1990s pomp, when an SF story could still be trusted to stay SF all the way through, until now, three decades onwards, we find ourselves encountering sadder, maybe wiser, assemblages of story that contain SF, but more fantastical and at the same time world-sensitive than before: AWD vehicles designed to cope with the badlands of the world we seem to have entered. But A Fire upon the Deep, which is SF all the way through, remains fit for purpose here in 2020. Perhaps because it tells two stories. One from 1992. One for now.
Of course SF has always been in a state of crisis, always dying, never dead, reborn like the phoenix. I was certainly one of those in 1990 who claimed to detect—not entirely without reasons—signs of heat death in the genre. The SF story itself—what we were beginning to think of as the SF megatext—was increasingly uncomfortable with history; some readers were already becoming nostalgic for what were becoming popularly known as yesterday’s tomorrows: futures from the Golden Age. In 1990, though the information revolution may have hardly begun, Sputnik and its breed had already brought space down to earth. No longer a frontier threshold in the mind’s eye, a “grammar” of story fundamental to the megatext, near-future space was becoming a day-job extension of history as we lived it, a confirmation of the nightmare we had hoped to escape: the sense of wonder reduced to mission statements. So it was easy to think that American SF had run its course; that the future would no longer give us suck; that the ever-moving frontier of old had become increasingly toll-gated, though none of us probably dreamt that thirty years later it would become a wall. As I said myself in a talk given around that time in Chicago: “The breast is shut.”
But we still inhabited a living drama back then, even if the curtain seemed to be dropping. Some of the founders of American SF, authors who had invented the SF megatext, were still alive and continuing to contribute to its coral-reef growth. SF was still a conversation you could continue to live within: a fast-forward, meme-rich, artifact-haunted track into the Sense of Wonder that you could trust the grammar of. The SF story was useful. It was good to think with. It was good to wake up after a long evening’s good read, ready for the next day of the rest of your life, in a world SF could still describe. An author like Vernor Vinge, who was born in 1947 and by 1992 had been publishing fiction for a quarter of a century, was just now entering his prime. He knew the megatext backwards and forwards, and he knew he could still tell an SF story without tearing it apart. And he grabbed the chance.
Vinge’s readers in 1992 would almost certainly recognize his accomplishment, for he managed to model a galaxy free of the real-science constraints ordaining, for instance, that faster-than-light travel was nonsense, and that, as the Drake Equation argued, other intelligent life in the galaxy was astronomically unlikely. He was not alone. Writers like Iain M. Banks and Greg Bear and C. J. Cherryh and Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe (a bit earlier) had also been revamping and supercharging the old space opera form, complexifying the old Heroes with a Thousand Faces into more problematic beings (compare Vinge’s multiply discombobulated Pham Nuwen with Larry Niven’s Ringworld predecessor Louis Wu from 1970), rebuilding the old tinkertoy galaxies into labyrinths that seemed turtles all the way down: compare Vinge’s galaxy (see below) with E. E. Smith’s pre–World War Two Lensmen world. As befits writers in the Silver Age of a form, Vinge and his peers were, in other words, deeply playful and dead serious, as were some of those who began to publish a few years later, like Stephen Baxter, or Linda Nagata, or Alastair Reynolds, or Charles Stross. Each of them excelled in one way or another (Banks’s post-scarcity universe retains all its initial transgressiveness), but of them all only Vinge, I think, gave us a galactic architecture truly fit for stories to be told within.
Vinge’s treatment of Homo sapiens as special-case victims of Arrested Development builds from predecessor tales like Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave (1954), in which our solar system finally exits a vast region of space where “electromagnetic and electrochemical processes” had been hampered from time immemorial, making morons of us all, and preventing our escape into the larger universe. In A Fire upon the Deep, this slightly arbitrary escape is reconfigured into a three-dimensional geography of the galaxy itself, which Vinge divides into four zones. The inner galaxy, a region containing almost all its mass and star systems, is known as the Unthinking Depths; here, Andersonian impediments are so profoundly crippling that sentience is almost impossible, and escape inconceivable. Surrounding the Depths is the Slow Zone, where atomic interactions are faster, though faster-than-light travel is still impossible, and self-conscious AI’s deeply unlikely; it is here that Homo sapiens had very slowly evolved, finally escaping some millions (or maybe billions) of years before the era of A Fire upon the Deep. The region of space that became our home is known as the Beyond, which circumambulates the Slow Zone. AIs can gain consciousness here, and faster-than-light speeds are possible. The Beyond is the vast heart of the Vingean playground. It has served as a home for millions of species for billions of years, where they are born, thrive, grow senescent, die (Homo sapiens is an ageing species in this immense arena, and humans do not dominate the action of the novel). Beyond the Beyond lies the Transcend, a region so free of the dirt of the galaxy that gods—or creatures we easily confuse with gods—can be born there, and thrive. The aspirational thrust of the Vinge universe theoretically impels an outward and upward urge (though the plot of A Fire upon the Deep moves, dangerously, in the other direction; in one chapter a spaceship carrying Cargo from the Transcend deep into the Beyond is caught terrifyingly in the Slow Zone, but escapes), and whole civilizations from the upper Beyond have a habit of transcending, disappearing from the realms of story beneath them. (Banks made use more than once of the same topos, which he saw more negatively than Vinge does.)
For readers in 2020, this playground universe may seem less a sophistication of megatext than a dream: an intoxicating vision of a describable universe within which stories can be told. Even in 1992, A Fire upon the Deep seemed intoxicatingly useful as a tool to play with. By 2020, at a time it is increasingly difficult to describe, what once seemed to have been woven cleverly from tradition and innovation, at the silver-hued end of an age when story architects had a leg to stand on, now seems a pure gift, a gratis fireball from the past.
Some other changes in reader reception may be suggested. The first may be the most obvious. In 1992, Vinge’s Known Net—an email-like network connecting millions of civilizations across the Beyond, whose transmission capacity is stretched when more than ten thousand communications are exchanged every minute (or was it hour?)—may have seemed a decent prediction of the growth of the then-infant World Wide Web, and the soubriquet he bestows upon it—“The Net of a Million Lies”—may have seemed adequately damning; in 2020, we may simply be relieved to inhabit a universe where information shapes but does not totally consume the narrative, that A Fire upon the Deep precedes our current watch-the-skies immersion in a trillionfold Singularity of Things so information-dense that Story suffocates.
Back in 1992, we began the first pages of the tale with apprehension but also some exhilaration. A human-dominated civilization known as the Straumli Realm has sent an expedition into the Transcend, where an archive, billions of years old, has been discovered. Even in 1992, we suspect that no good is going to come from hubristic tampering with a labyrinth that may contain a bad god. Indeed, the expedition is more or less wiped out instantly, for the Straumli mission has awoken from its bondage a Perversion whose only goal is to transfigure the entire galaxy into what will soon be called a Blight: whole civilizations eaten into whited sepulchres, whole populations husked into obscene puppets. By 2020, when it seems increasingly obvious that when you choose to starve with a tiger, “the tiger starves last” (Walt Kelly), we feel not so much an exhilaration of dread as a dread resignation. But then we wake up into Vinge’s dream. It’s going to be bad, and there will be six hundred pages of increasing suspense, but he’s going to pull us out of any dive into the Unthinking Depths; he’s going to save for us the great galaxy he made up, and he will dismiss from all our caring a Perversion That Cannot Stop Eating (at least until a late sequel, The Children of the Sky from 2011; but that’s another story).
We fall out of this first chapter into the long double story. A single ship has escaped, and plummets downwards almost into the Slow Zone, carrying aboard it a Something (which is to say a McGuffin) which may be an antidote against the perversion, and a human family. The ship crash-lands on the Tines World, where the adults are ambushed and killed, leaving two children in the hands of two opposing clans of the gestault-like native species—each “individual” entity containing up to eight dog-like units, who communicate by something hard to distinguish from telepathy. Meanwhile, at the behest of a mortally wounded Power from the Transcend, a second ship has launched itself in pursuit of the McGuffin. On board are the multiplex quasi Homo sapiens creature Pham Nuwen, who seems human but is in fact a “partial” of the Power housed within a spatchcocked human psyche from at least thirty thousand years earlier (we meet him back then in an otherwise entirely standalone prequel, A Deepness in the Sky from 1999); a human woman grieving the death of the Straumli Realm; and two Skodoriders, members of the second non-human species to feature in the tale. After five hundred pages of tsunami-intense turmoil, the two stories dovetail in a galaxy-shaking climax. It should not be too great a “spoiler” (loathsome word) to hint that the good guys win.
In 1992, the two alien species who dominate A Fire upon the Deep may have seemed a tad artifactual. Their construction certainly reminded me then of the Hard SF trick—Larry Niven was its greatest exponent—of conceiving aliens as niche species, hugely well-adapted for particular environments but so rigidly bound to the intricate environmental demands of their home worlds to cope very well when they meet the great universe outside: the species best designed to cope with constant innovation was, of course, Homo sapiens, a species which, with its big brain and monkey hands, proved infinitely adaptable. Some of this unsubtle self-praise seemed to cloud the tale in 1992; and it may be a pleasing discovery on entering the river again in 2020 to register a shift in how we understand Vinge’s take on these matters.
The patchwork Skodoriders may indeed still seem over-determined by the five-billion-year-old prostheses that give them mobility and short-term memory pickup; the dog-like ensembles of Tine, on the other hand, seem more and more like potential free agents, even if they need some human help to get their dance in order. But once given a whiff of Lamarckian uplift, they pick up the reins and fly. They are funny, fast, free, subtle, extremely smart, each individual ensemble as balletic as a consort of catamarans; and they are courteous. In 2020 they are Prometheus Unbound. They are the road we did not take into this new century we have not earned. So the Tiners give us a vacation from ourselves, while imparting a grave lesson. They incline us to realize that we ourselves are a niche species, that we are the Perversion in the great kitchen, that the wondrous but despoiled planet we’re in the process of cenotaphing is a world we might have treasured had we not been programmed—which is to say had we not been niched—to devour ourselves, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
In the end, A Fire upon the Deep is not about us. It is a dream. We need to dream it.
Copyright © 1992 by Vernor Vinge
Introduction copyright © 2020 by John Clute