Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Vinge is kind of a big deal in the science fiction world.  He coined the term singularity in this paper which was hugely influential among fellow writers as well as the tinfoil hat brigade.  I'd never read any of his stuff before, but this book is fantastic.

It sounds corny, but he's literally put a new dimension into SF: The Zones of Thought.  The idea is intelligence and technology don't work at the the centre of the galaxy.  Those are the Unthinking Depths.  Further out is the Slowness where Earth lies.  Beyond this is the - well - Beyond.  Here's where you hit science fiction paydirt.  Faster than light travel, instant communication and millions of alien civilisations living and interacting in this narrow strip around the edge of the galaxy.  Beyond that is where it gets interesting.

This means when ships travel deeper, it's got the feel of a submarine battle.  They slow down, technology stops working and they can't talk to anyone further up.  It's also a neat explanation for the Fermi paradox - any aliens which are advanced enough to make contact with Earth are thousands of light years away in the Beyond, zipping about like Buck Rogers.

I also love the deep time in this book.  It's way in the future but humans are still a pretty young player in the Beyond.  Their mythology doesn't come from Earth, but from a jungle planet further out called Nyjora where humanity built itself back up from the dark ages to space travel.  They often talk about chivalry in the Age of Princesses, and the steam engines of Nyjora during the industrial revolution.  They know about Earth - theoretically - but it's this second history of humanity which is their frame of reference.

And this is all backstory for something even better - a first rate fantasy novel on a planet of gestalt sentient aliens.  Each "individual" is a pack of dog-like beings whose individual members aren't themselves sentient.  As well as a fascinating look at how an intelligent lifeform like this could operate, it's also a great adventure story, with human children learning about the world and some proper villains up to no good.  Like something from a Nyjoran fairy tale.

I've already got the follow up to this -  A Deepness in the Sky which is set thousands of years earlier, and there's a direct sequel set on the same planet which is just out called Children of the Sky, but word is it's a bit disappointing.  I'll read it anyway.

I owe a review of the big Caesar biography I've been listening to for months and have now finished (he dies) and I should soon be finished another Le Carre and the second Hunger Games book.  My light blogging of late I'm going to blame on Murakami's 1Q84, which I read two thirds of and couldn't be bothered finishing.  What went wrong Haruki?


Ed said...

I'm 2/3 of the way through After Hours by Murukami and it's got me hooked so far. I'm spinning it out though cos it's such a short novel - you could probably get through it in a couple of hours!

Good review by the way - sounds intriguing. I don't normally read sci-fi, but tempted by this one.

Ed said...

I meant After Dark of course.

Joe said...

Certainly worth a read, and not too long either.

I didn't even mention that two of the main characters are potted plants on wheels!