Saturday, 7 April 2007

A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernor Vinge

This book was recommended to me about four years ago by a colleague at SoftLaw. It took me about that long to find it. If you're in Sydney, I can highly recommend the Galaxy bookstore on York St - thanks for putting me onto them, Jen!

The underlying premise interested me enough to keep an eye out for this book for four years. The galaxy is divided into zones. As you move up through the zones more advanced thought and science becomes available. From the Unthinking Depths, where rational thought is barely possible, through the Slow Zone, where there is no faster-than-light travel, to the Beyond, with faster-than-light travel and advanced artificial intelligence. To me this is still an interesting and novel view of the Universe. It provides both an extrinsic motivation common across individuals and species - to move up to a more glorious life that can't even be expressed at your current level - and also a danger and a fear. There is nothing worse than falling into a lower zone. Sounds religious doesn't it? And that is alluded to, although it would have been good to see that developed some more.

The rich potential of this premise left the book as a whole slightly disappointing.

Overall, the story is a quest. Which is another point in favour of my 'Sci-Fi is fantasy set in the future' hypothesis... A quest story is really a journey to the depths of the soul for all the major protagonists. For some of the characters in the story, this was handled very well. For others though you just didn't get the feeling of plumbing depths from which they could never return.

And so, just like Thomas Pynchon's 'Gravity's Rainbow' ruined David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' for me, so was 'A Fire Upon the Deep' ruined by Iain M. Banks' 'The Algebraist.'

To first world citizens, the world is no longer a huge and almost infinite place. Stories where a significant part of the dramatic weight to the quest is the enormous distance that must be travelled to cross a country no longer ring true. We can now fly to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours and for less than $3,000. The other side of the world no longer feels like an vast distance from where we started. But we are starting to stare up into the night sky and imagine just how far those other points of light are. Distances such that after 30 years a satellite has only just left our solar system.

Treks across this almost infinite emptyness are the things that amaze and scare us now. And unfortunately that was exactly the feeling 'A Fire Upon the Deep' failed to capture.

Don't get me wrong, it is a great Sci-Fi story, and the premise is very interesting. It just could have been so much more. Hence, the feeling of disappointment. If you're into Sci-Fi though, I would recommend it.


Adam said...

I like Vernor Vinge but I agree with you that he has a few failings as an author. There are too many SF authors who have universe encompassing ideas and concepts but as the plot in their novels proceeds they scale the story down to a 'human' level that leaves you a bit disappointed.
Feersum Enjinn springs to mind as one novel where the epic scale is doesn't diminish. Very hard to read though :-)

Adam said...

But why did 'The Algebraist' ruin 'A Fire Upon the Deep'

aquaman said...

Because it was just so much better. The Algebraist has a similar plot line (quest to find something to save the Universe...) but it does the whole enormity of the galaxy thing so much better.

And the Dwellers were cool.

It was all that sort of thing. Both books seemed to be doing similar things, and The Algebraist was just better each time. So if I'd read them in the other order A Fire Upon the Deep wouldn't have been disappointing at all.

The Algebraist also lines up with A Fire Upon the Deep more than the Culture novels.

Hey, I've gone and read a couple of Iain Banks' novels now. Dead Air and The Wasp Factory. And they're actually no where near as gruesome as some of his Sci-Fi, I think we both know what I'm talking about...

I'd recommend both of those. The scene with the Holocaust denier in Dead Air is worth it alone :)