Sometimes the biggest disasters aren’t noticed at all – no one’s around to write horror stories.

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Every now and then I like to dip my toe back into the waters of pure science fiction. If you don’t share that interest, and almost nobody who reads this blog does, this review probably isn’t for you.

Vernor Vinge is one of the greats of recent(ish) science fiction, responsible among other things for the real world concept of the singularity (later popularised by futurologist Ray Kurzweil). Vinge’s claim to fame however doesn’t rest on coining a vaguely useful word, but on writing one of the all time classics of the space opera genre.


This is big-ticket big concept SF. Vinge postulates a dense and complex future in which the galaxy (and beyond) is home to a vast number of intelligences of varying technological development. Unusually for SF, humanity here has no particular importance in galactic affairs – we’re one species among a great many.

Librarian Ravna Bergsndot is the first human ever to get to work at Relay, an immensely wealthy and advanced interstellar communications hub. That makes her suddenly important when back home some other humans accidentally let loose an ancient artificial intelligence which develops so swiftly and with such aggression that it threatens to annihilate entire species and civilisations.

On the wider galactic stage where history is measured in billions of years, that’s not necessarily actually that big a deal. On the other hand, if you live in the vicinity it’s quite important.

The galaxy in Vinge’s novel is separated, possibly artificially, into “zones of thought” – layers of space in which technology and cognition are increasingly limited the closer you get to the galactic core. Earth lies (lay, it doesn’t feature in the novel) in the Slow Zone where faster than light travel is impossible and AI incredibly limited. Civilisation largely exists in the zone above and further out where these things are possible. Beyond that is, well, the Beyond where intelligences we cannot even comprehend do whatever it is they do.

‘The Beyond and below are like a deep of ocean, and we the creatures that swim in the abyss. We’re so far down that the beings on the surface – superior though they are – can’t effectively reach us. Oh, they fish, and they sometimes blight the upper levels with poisons we don’t even understand. But the abyss remains a relatively safe place.’ She paused. There was more to the analogy. ‘And just as with an ocean, there is a constant drift of flotsam from the top.

Go too close to the centre and you hit the Unthinking Depths, where advanced technology simply fails and intelligence becomes impossible.


When the Blight starts to metastasize, any attempt to stop it becomes worth pursuing no matter how desperate. It’s known that a single human ship from the group who initially triggered the Blight’s release escaped and that they possibly have something with them that could damage it. Ravna is given a ship and sent to find and rescue that other human crew. All she has to help her is an ancient resurrected astronaut who carries a fragment of AI superintelligence within his brain and two alien traders each of whom looks “like a small ornamental tree sitting in a six-wheeled cart”.

Meanwhile, the human ship who escaped the Blight have crash landed on a medieval world with no knowledge of the wider galaxy or the attention that’s now being focused on it. That world is occupied by the Tines, pack-sentients where three to six individual members make up a single personality.

The west edge of their landing area was swarming with … things. Like wolves or dogs, but with long necks, they moved quickly forward, darting from hummock to hummock. Their pelts were the same gray green of the hillside, except near their haunches where she saw white and black. No, the green was clothing, jackets. Johanna was in shock, the pressure of the bolt through her chest not yet registering as pain. She had been thrown back against uptilted turf and for the moment had a view of the whole attack. She saw more arrows rise up, dark lines floating in the sky. She could see the archers now. More dogs! They moved in packs. It took two of them to use a bow – one to hold it and one to draw. The third and fourth carried quivers of arrows and just seemed to watch.

It sounds like a confused and unlikely mess, but Vinge absolutely pulls it off. He conjures up a vast, complicated and ancient web of civilisations of which we form just a tiny part and then focuses in on a handful of characters – human and alien – because he never forgets that however large the canvas it’s the small lives upon it which actually matter.

On the Tines’ planet the arrival of the aliens is both opportunity and potential disaster. It turns a cold war between two feudal powers hot, as each tries to capitalise on their access to the crashed aliens and their technology. Much of the pleasure of the book comes from exploring the nature of the Tines, with the peculiarities of their psychology and the advantages and limitations of their pack nature all being convincing and well explored.

The human survivors on the Tines’ world find themselves enmeshed in medieval power-politics of a type utterly unfamiliar to them, struggling both to adapt to a species never before encountered and to the precarious nature of their own position. Their rescuers have their own internal issues, none of them really being suited to a task of the magnitude that’s fallen to them, and come to find themselves the McGuffin in a competition between rival fleets each capable of annihilating planets. It’s the small scale and the large again, the epic giving that sense of wonder but the personal giving it all a point.

Vinge combines all this with a nice (though now a bit dated) satirical edge in that due to bandwidth issues the various aliens of the galaxy communicate via something suspiciously similar to Usenet. Like any social media it’s full of inaccuracies, errors and downright lies. The story is interspersed with posts on the galactic net – some well informed, some malicious, some downright clueless.

In the end though if you read this sort of novel it’s for the sheer imaginative splendour of it all. That feeling of a universe that is deeper and richer and older than we can imagine. A universe where there is wonder. It’s basically escapist, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional escape.

Our current understanding, which looks extremely unlikely to be overturned, is that faster than light travel is in fact impossible. Coupled with that is the fact that we’ve been staring out into the dark for a while now and the universe is notable primarily for its utter silence. If there’s anybody out there they seem to be very far away and not particularly chatty.

Still, if we can take pleasure from multi-generational Irish family sagas with abusive uncles and judgemental priests; from Brooklyn authors struggling with the meaning of their very comfortable lives; from tales of failing marriages, mid-life crises and murders; why not too from aliens and civilisations as unlikely as they are splendid? If you’ve no love for SF this book won’t change your mind, but if you do it’s a lot of fun.


Filed under SF, Vinge, Vernor

11 responses to “Sometimes the biggest disasters aren’t noticed at all – no one’s around to write horror stories.

  1. Was that last paragraph addressed to me personally? I do like an occasional sci-fi book, though, and this one sounds quite ambitious and ‘completist’ in its imaginative creation of worlds.

  2. ‘fraid not, it was addressed to me really since I tend not to read this kind of book much any more though, and to the idea there’s something somehow lesser about this kind of fiction which I don’t believe. On reflection, it occurs to me though that I’m more likely to read this than Irish multi-generational family novels (though I do have Anne Enright’s The Green Road coming up hopefully reasonably soon, but based on the only Enright I’ve read she avoids that awful miserabilism so celebrated in some Irish fiction).

    The characterisation isn’t amazing here, but it generally isn’t in SF so I didn’t really think that worth mentioning (it’s not bad the way it sometimes can be). It’s a fat book, but it rather has to be given the amount that’s packed in.

    Subsequently he’s written a prequel (which I own, but might not read as it focuses on the backstory to the character I found least interesting here) and a sequel with another sequel planned. None of that seems necessary. This story is self contained and it’s already four or five hundred pages, there’s no need to turn it into War and Peace.

    It is quite classic SF. There’s a lovely dedication in the back to Poul Anderson, a writer I have mixed views on though his fantasy novel The Broken Sword is genuinely very good indeed. It makes sense though because this is in a kind of Andersonian tradition, it’s very 1990s because of the Usenet references but otherwise it could easily be golden age 1970s style SF.

  3. Sounds as though it would make a great film.

  4. You’d need a lot of CGI and it’d be about four hours long, but yes I could see it might actually. I suspect the fact we can now make films with this kind of storyline is why we’re seeing a bit of a renaissance of SF cinema. Before CGI you’d have needed puppets and it would have looked ludicrous. It would still be tricky, there’s a lot of characters and only four of them are human.

  5. One of my favorite science fiction novels, at least in its universe and premise. Great review!

  6. It’s funny. If this were a film I would probably go and see it, but because it’s a book I feel somewhat reluctant to try something like this. Maybe it’s a time thing. With a film, you’re in and out within a couple of hours, but with a novel it feels like a much bigger investment in time, possibly spread over the course of a week. It does sounds fun, though…I’ll have to hope it gets optioned for the movies!

  7. Rory, thanks. Did you read any of the others in the sequence? It made me think that way (and only in that way) of Rendesvouz with Rama, there just didn’t seem to be a need to say more and explaining the stuff that’s not explained risks making it less interesting (definitely true of the Rama books).

    Jacqui, I wouldn’t recommend this as one for you to read. As a movie sure, but as a book I think it’s strengths probably wouldn’t appeal and its weaknesses would therefore stand out more.

    Am I misremembering or did you write a review of Roadside Picnic? That’s the sort of SF novel I might recommend a non-SF fan because there’s tons in there that’s interesting even if you’re quite indifferent to imagined aliens and so on.

  8. I haven’t read Roadside Picnic, but we have discussed it before, possibly in the comments thread of my review of The Dead Lake, a Peirene novella featuring a nuclear test site called The Zone – I think you picked up on a potential reference to Picnic. It’s still on one of my wishlists so I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point!

  9. That’ll be it, thanks.

  10. Alastair Savage

    It’s funny that the more we know about the universe, the less potential there is for story-telling out there. I think modern authors must feel very jealous of their illustrious forebears who could happily imagine alien societies thriving on Jupiter or Saturn, which we now know to be gas giants, or happily fording the canals of Mars, which we now believe to be (mostly) arid.
    As this book does sound a bit dated, I would recommend anything by Peter F. Hamilton, who manages the trick of selling books in the millions whilst being almost completely ignored by the sniffy mainstream media.

  11. Well, less potential for a certain kind of storytelling. It’s not daunted British SF authors though – Ken McLeod, Stephen Baxter, Alistair Reynolds, Richard Morgan. I think it’s particularly a problem for the US where the myth of the frontier is so important, but I think they can (and will) get past it too.

    I liked Hamilton’s series where the dead come through to our reality to possess the living – a classic horror motif – but set against the backdrop of a vast interstellar future rather than some isolated house in the backwoods. I quite liked too his rather rightwing near future Cyberpunk stuff. He can’t write endings though can he? Bit too fond of deus ex machina, literally in the case of the space opera (loved Al Capone’s ghost though as the main villain).

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