From A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

I recently picked up this novel as a vacation read – not too taxing, I thought, after teaching the philosophy course this fall. I’d heard this was the best of recent science fiction. Vernor Vinge, a professor of mathematics and computer science, writes what is considered “hard science fiction” because it is grounded in plausible conjectures about future scientific developments. After reading AFUD, I’m not entirely convinced this is true, although I think it’s about as good as Pebble In the Sky or Dune, two scifi favorites of mine from way back when.

A singleton star, reddish and dim. A ragtag of asteroids, and a single planet, more like a moon. In this era the star hung near the galactic plane, just beyond the Beyond. The structures on the surface were gone from normal view, pulverized into regoltih across a span of aeons. The treasure was far underground, beneath a network of passages, in a single room filled with black. Information at the quantum density, undamaged. Maybe five billion years had passed since the archive was lost to the nets.

This first paragraph (the last sentence in particular) reveals how much the novel is based as much on theories of science as it is on the technology of rocket ships and ray guns – in other words, influenced as much by Claude Shannon and Thomas Kuhn as Wernher von Braun. On the other hand, Vinge takes as much care with the creation of alien races as Philip K. Dick or George Lucas ever did. The “Tines” are dog-like creatures that have human level intelligence as long as they remain in packs of 4 to 8 individuals. They live on a world very similar to Earth, and have developed a level of civilization that seems the equivalent of ancient pagan cultures on our own planet, and about as violent. The Riders are creatures that, like humans, inhabit different civilizations throughout the Milky Way. They’re basically plants that are able to think, talk, and fly space ships, even if they’re only able to get around by means of motorized grocery carts. Yes, it’s all very odd. It’s not as good as the best of Philip K. Dick, I don’t think, but then, what is?


  1. This was the first Vinge novel that I had ever read, and what impressed me were his creatures of collective consciousness. It was the most convincing portrayal of a foreign form of consciousness that I had encountered. In sci-fi you can find almost any physiology, but no matter how strange the body form the intelligence ends up very human. Vernor Vinge creatures are more convincing in their consistency, showing how form and consciousness *must* be linked because the first defines how we perceive.

  2. Are you the famous Montanan-Italian astrophysicist R.Drimmel? Because if you are, I’m skeptical that you’d be wasting your time reading a trashy blog like this.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    R. Drimmel ~ This was the first Vinge I’d read, and I couldn’t agree more. The “Tines” are convincing, creepy, and – as far as I can tell – entirely original. I hadn’t thought about them in terms of a form/consciousness dualism, but that makes a lot of sense. I did find myself wondering what their heads looked like – cranium size and shape in particular.

    I’m now reading A Deepness in the Sky and enjoying it as well.

    anonym-ass ~ What’s a sweetheart like you doo-ing in a dump like this, anyway?

  4. Rufus McCain says

    The Tines they are a-changin’!

  5. “A Deepness in the Sky” is even better!

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