Friday, September 4, 2009

A Fire Upon the Deep

I like hard science fiction better than so-called soft science fiction. I assume, like all matters pertaining to geek culture, that the genre boundaries are seemingly arbitrary and therefore, forever argued amongst the fans. For the purposes of this blog, let's define hard science fiction as any sci-fi that features science and technology based on real principles, or are at least properly extrapolated from real principles. Conversely, soft science fiction displays its technology without explanation, and presents science as magic. Often, hard sci-fi is set in the present, or the near-future, that way the author's predictions are accurate, or at least a safe bet. Not very often does a hard sci-fi novel come into contact with the genre of space opera, the much maligned "country cousin" of the sci-fi world. Space opera has given birth to such works as Flash Gordon and Star Wars, both of which we would never call intelligent because of its tech. But there exists smart space opera, and I'd like to review one example of it.

This long introduction brings me to the Hugo Award-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. Published in 1993, Vinge's novel postulates a far future where thousands of cultures and races and species exist in the galaxy, but are separated by physical distance measured in "zones of thought". Essentially, this is Vinge's ingenious solution to the Fermi Paradox, as well as a sidestep to the concept of the technological singularity problem. The idea is that the human race will inevitably make a machine that has superhuman intelligence, after which, the machine will continue to improve itself until it's at the point of godhood (in our frame of reference). The technology to come after the moment of creating the superhuman intelligence will end the human era.

Bear with me, I'm going to get to Vinge's novel in a second. We just have to explain the byzantine background of the novel before attempting to explain its plot.

In the galaxy, the zones of thought imply that at the lowest level, technology is stupid and slow. In the middle are faster than light travel, and other sci-fi esque tech, and at the other end is where the super-intelligent transcendent beings are, the ones creating life. These beings, called Powers, are so beyond human that the normal being anywhere else outside of this zone cannot comprehend the Powers' thought process. They are at the god level.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, some human on a research laboratory have accidentally uncovered the means to awakening an older Power, one with vast intelligence and motives far too complex to ever understand. This Power amasses an army through mind-control (or rather, something else, but to give it away would spoil the novel), and tears through the galaxy.

Okay, still with me? Some humans escape the laboratory with the countermeasure, but are stranded on a "slow" planet, populated by strange aliens. These marooned children, hopeless to understand the countermeasure, send an SOS to a relay station that "relays" information through the Net (like a far-future USENet). Our main characters, a humanoid, a swashbuckler from the ancient times, and two plant-aliens, travel to this slow unthinking planet to rescue the children and employ the countermeasure before the destruction of the Power engulfs the entire galaxy.

Whew. So if you're still with me, you can see that this is a big novel filled with big ideas - massive ideas, actually. Vinge himself is a mathematician and one of the world's best futurists. His concept of the technological singularity looms over this novel, so much that in order to properly tease out the science, one must understand the underlying theorem.

This space opera can be enjoyed without the long winded explanation that I gave. It's a gripping story that includes a really long chase, huge space battles, lots of destruction, and tons of well-imagined aliens.

Reading A Fire Upon the Deep, I was disappointed. Much of the narrative takes place on a medieval alien world, and many aliens get their chance in the spotlight. It was like I was being tricked into reading a fantasy novel, almost, but with many technological insights. Plus, Vinge's characters are paper-thin, and his prose doesn't really leap off the page.

But as I absorbed the novel, and really thought about how much cool science is in here, I began to appreciate the novel even more. There's so many fun little things scattered around that covers for Vinge's deficiencies as a character-builder. The amount of thought he put into the aliens is astonishing. Every little detail about the two main alien species are developed fully and with attention to realism. He even manages to avoid the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and have the aliens speak languages obviously invented by an author.

As a novel, A Fire Upon the Deep isn't the greatest. It's more a collection of really cool ideas thrown together. This isn't necessarily a negative thing. In terms of space opera, this is really good, but in the larger picture, I'm not about to include this book among the literary canon.

The novel's science is amazing, and the theory that it postulates about the technological singularity is fascinating and frightening. However, the prose is workman-like and the characters bland. A Fire Upon the Deep is an amazing curiosity shop of concepts rather than a solid novel, but still worth reading. I would recommend this to fans of hard and soft sci-fi as it bridges the gap quite well, containing excellent science and great action.

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