Book: A fire upon the deep - Livre d'Or

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Book: A fire upon the deep
Saturday, 16 October 2004 at 07:29 pm

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Author: Vernor Vinge

Details: (c) 1992 Vernor Vinge; Pub 1993 Tor (Tom Doherty Associates Inc); ISBN 0-812-51528-5

Verdict: A fire upon the deep is exciting and original despite its flaws.

Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man declared that it was time I read this, so ever obedient, I did so.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.

I found A fire upon the deep highly readable; I couldn't wait to get back to it and got really caught up in the story, to the extent that I was happy to overlook all the little things that would have annoyed me in a less exciting story. It's adventursome, it almost never drops the pace, and it uses its SF setting effectively to make the stakes almost unimaginably high, while at the same time keeping the focus on people that the reader can relate to and care about. I also liked the balance between the ultimate battle stuff and the little local war on the Tines' planet. It was very easy to suspend any kind of critical relationship to the story and just enjoy. And while the outcome is fairly predictable, it is reached by a delightfully twisty route. The ending is perhaps a little too pat, but that's pretty much expected for the genre.

I really like the 'Zones of thought' conceit behind the setting, the idea that the laws of both physics and information are different in different regions of the galaxy and the consequences of this both for the background and for the plot itself. Also, the sense that the galaxy is really, really huge and diverse is quite nicely maintained. I enjoyed the extremely imaginative alien races. There are plenty who are different from humans in non-clichéd ways, and mention of the existence of beings who are so different that no kind of interaction is possible. It's a little thing, but I like the way that translation issues are actually addressed, even if the solution is a rather handwavy 'very effective technology'. The setting lends originality even within the rather obvious theme of a quest for the magical object which can defeat evil.

The other thing that really heightens the excitement is that the characters are encouragingly mortal. People die without being earmarked by being excessively cute, excessivly heroic, or obviously expendable. Just characters that have played a role in a couple of scenes, who have some good points and some bad points. I approve of stories that don't cheat on this one.

AFutD is let down by weak characterization, over-explaining of characters' motives because they're not quite solid enough as people for them to be obvious, and teeth-grindingly awful dialogue. Things like introducing conflict in a previously peaceful scene with the line Not all was sweetness and light, however. The children are possibly even worse than the adults; they both act far younger than their supposed ages and nevertheless the adults keep telling them how surprisingly mature they are.

And I got thoroughly fed up with Ravna being such a bloody girl. To be honest, AFutD is rather transparently a boys' book; having a female protagonist who is vaguely competent within her field doesn't add anything to it, especially as she tends to deal with serious crises by bursting into tears and wishing for knights in shining armour. The whole 'As the token female character, it is my bounden duty to have passionate sex and fall madly in love with the first male and approximately human person I encounter' shtick is really not endearing, and it's bad enough when the children react to everything with wide-eyed comments about how it's all 'just like a storybook', but as a depiction of an adult and supposedly intelligent woman it made me want to throw things. I mean, really, mumblety thousand years in the future and we still haven't moved on from Lieutenant Uhura?

There were a couple of little things that niggled, too. The portrayal of a pan-galactic information exchange system as a giant Usenet is just incongruous. And along the same lines, nothing but the most primitive possible technology requires the use of a font specially designed for use on low-res screens, so there's no reason for a novel set in the far future to represent electronic communication as poorly readable. It also annoyed me that Johanna's Dataset seems to be conveniently oblivious to the Zones which are so critical for the rest of the plot.

Addendum 18.10.04: dubhain puts a very thoughtful counterargument to some of my criticisms over in bibliotheca

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Date:October 17th, 2004 05:34 pm (UTC)
6 hours after journal entry
Johanna's Dataset didn't seem to be oblivious to the Zones when I read the book; it seems to be acting as a simple information retrieval device, and doesn't have any kind of intelligence or ability to interpret the data it's presenting. It's the Tines who show the most intelligence...

Ready to read "A Deepness In The Sky" by the same author?
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lethargic_man: reflect
Date:October 18th, 2004 03:00 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 04:00 am (lethargic_man's time)

Galactic Usenet.

dubhain wrote:

When Vinge was writing it, USENET was about as high-tech as information technology went in the real world.

Also, I do think Usenet is a sensible solution to forming communities if, as is the case in the book, bandwidth is limited. The Known Net is perhaps excessively RL-Usenet with its headers, but I'm prepared to forgive that, in exchange for being able to refer to the RL Internet as the Net of a Thousand Lies.

There was no public USENET gateway until Delphi was allowed to open one in '94 (The beginning of the eternal September).

papersky has an endearing story about meeting Vernor Vinge at a con and thanking him for inventing Usenet.
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lethargic_man: default
Date:October 18th, 2004 03:04 am (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry, 04:04 am (lethargic_man's time)

A Fire Upon The Deep

Spoiler alert:

Didja spot that Twirlip of the Mists, rather than being the clueless newbie it appeared, was in fact the only character to actually realise what was going on? (Think about the likes of "Is it true that humans have six legs?")

And now you ought to be able to follow the lines in my .sig:
  Q: What do you get when you multiply six by nine?
  A: Forty-two:-- Tridecapodia is the key insight!

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lethargic_man: beardy
Date:October 18th, 2004 10:31 am (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 11:31 am (lethargic_man's time)

A Fire Upon The Deep

I'm surprised you didn't also comment on the language; the evolution of "Nguyen" (presumably) into "Nuwen", and the way the change from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture is reflected in surnames ending "-*sson" having another ending tacked on, in a realistic manner, to become "-sndot".

A Deepness In The Sky has lots more little puzzles like that for the reader to work out for themself. I think they're like a science-based version of the arts-based symbolism literature often contains; and I love them: I'm very bad at being able to spot symbolism, but good at spotting geeky stuff like this.

Something else like that: it's never mentioned, it's something the reader has to discover for themself, but "Nyjora" means "New Earth" in Samnorsk. Also, that Samnorsk nowadays is a form of Norwegian invented by the Norwegian government as a compromise between the two different dialects in use in Norway (and used, I am told by no one apart from the government).

Another thing that's mentioned but the implications of which are left for the reader to work out: the slow shrinkage of the Zones. That meant that life could evolve on Earth and have a chance to get to the stage where sentience could evolve, without the Earth being colonised and its native life nobbled by some imperialistic alien race. Intelligence could only then evolve on the Earth once the planet had moved from the Unthinking Depths to the Slow Zone.

Another question: given that the Zones are evidently an artificial construct, what do you think the Unthinking Depths are there to protect? (ObGenreCrossover: Azathoth!)
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lethargic_man: default
Date:October 18th, 2004 12:01 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 01:01 pm (lethargic_man's time)

A Fire Upon The Deep

More thoughts, dredged from my mail archive after I first read the book myself.

Ideas mentioned on rasf.w:Also, something rysmiel spotted which I missed: the apparent extension on the map of filaments of Beyond (?) between galaxies.

Something else I forgot: after reading this book I started using the "Summary:" field in my Usenet postings; it always read, of course, "Hexapodia as the key insight". No one ever noticed, though; most people's newsreaders probably don't even display the "Summary:" field by default.

Incidentally, did you know "A Fire Upon The Deep" was Tom Doherty's suggestion. Vinge's original working title was "Among The Tines", which I actually prefer: it's still got multiple meanings, but means something in the simple sense too.
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