Vernor Vinge
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A Fire Upon The Deep

Tor, HC, © 1992, 391 pp, ISBN #0-312-85182-0
Reviewed July 2003

I first read this book in 1993, shortly after it came out, and ten years later I still think it's one of the greatest SF novels ever written, blending high-concept cool ideas with character and a tense and engaging plot. It's not to be missed.

In this universe, the Milky Way galaxy is divided into three "zones of thought": The Unthinking Depths, the Slow Zone, and the Beyond, with the Transcend being the region outside the galaxy. The further you get from the center, the higher a level of intelligence and technology you can attain, and the higher speeds you can reach. Earth is in the Slow Zone, limited to lightspeed travel and moderate technology. Thousands of years in the future, however, humanity has reached the Beyond and has become one of the community of races inhabiting the outer shell.

One human colony, however, while performing research in the Transcend, releases an ancient and evil superpower, which promptly begins to take over whole planets throughout the Beyond. However, one group of colonists escapes in a small ship with cryogenically frozen children to a world near the Slow Zone. This world is inhabited by pack-mind creatures dubbed the Tines, and their first encounter results in two dead humans, dozens of dead Tines, and the children, Johanna and Jefri, captured by opposite sides in an ongoing conflict among Tine nations.

Meanwhile, forces elsewhere in the Beyond are justifiably disturbed by the Perversion the humans have released. A few reason that the ship on the Tines' world may contain some countermeasure to the evil power. As a result, a human librarian named Ravna, a reconstituted Slow Zone man named Pham Nuwen, and two Skroderiders - artificially mobile plants - embark on a journey to the Tines' world to find the ship. Meanwhile, the rest of the Beyond reacts variously to the Perversion: Trying to act against it directly, blaming the humans and trying to organize races to wipe them out, and considering it not really their problem, while the Perversion continues to expand its sphere of influence.

A Fire Upon the Deep contains ideas which, as one person has put it, would constitute the basis for whole books or series in the hands of a lesser author. The Zones of Thought are obviously a contrivance, but are a fascinating premise for a universe. The Tines are beings of four-to-eight bodies whose minds are linked and are the sum of the personalities of the individuals. Pham has a body constituted of several humans, but the mind of a dead Slow Zoner, and not only is he unsure whether his memories are real, but he has the remnants of a Transcendant Power lurking in his head, with its own agenda with respect to the Perversion. Not to mention the little touches of managing high-tech cultures over millennia, the commerce thereof, and the difficulty crossing species boundaries in communication.

The Perversion itself is kept at a (threatening) distance throughout much of the book, so a lot of the direct tension comes from its intermediaries, or others who take advantage of its presence for their own purposes. But most personally is the conflict on the Tines' world. Jefri lives with the Flenserists, a nation based around a leader who crafted packs from individuals with cold scientific precision. Johanna meanwhile is spirited away to Woodcarver's nation, who revolutionized the world by crafting packs more naturally - but deliberately - and created a pleasant and prosperous nation. Each unaware that the other still lives, Johanna and Jefri each help their new comrades construct higher technology to defeat the other and take advantage of whatever rewards they can reap from the coming of the Beyonders when the children are eventually rescued. The Flenserists are clearly the "bad guys", as evidenced by their present leader Steel, while Woodcarver and her people - notably the pilgrim Peregrine and the dilettante Scriber - are far more sympathetic and complex.

Although not often noted for his characterization, Vinge pulls out many touching moments in the book, particularly since many of the characters have to sacrifice or lose some of their most cherished viewpoints or treasures - or their lives - in order to win the day. Pham's internal struggle is difficult for himself and others. The Tines are first shaken up by the new war they've entered, and then again by the aliens' arrival. And others suffer worse fates. And with treachery and misunderstanding at many turns, Fire is at its best a real page-turner.

Fire is to my mind one of the best science fiction novels ever written, and even ten years later it feels fresh, innovative and exciting. Books like Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division and other recent space operas and high-concept novels owe much to what Vinge accomplished here. It's essential reading for any SF fan.

A Deepness In The Sky

Tor, HC, © 1999, 606 pp, ISBN #0-312-85683-0
Reviewed May 1999

Vernor Vinge is perhaps my favorite science fiction author - despite having a relatively modest output of material. His previous two novels - Marooned and Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep - are both among my favorite science fiction books. Fire postulates that the galaxy is divided into "zones of thought", and that the farther you travel from the center of the galaxy, the fewer limits are imposed on the ability of a species to advance scientifically: Magical technologies can be invented, the speed of light can be transcended, artificial intelligence is possible, and so forth. Earth, on the other hand, exists in the "Slow Zone", a part of the galaxy where the speed of light is a hard limit, and there's a clear upper limit to our scientific potential.

Deepness is a "prequel" of sorts of Fire. Fire takes place across a large section of the galaxy, and involves a man named Pham Nuwen, once a leader of a great human trading fleet in the Slow Zone, resurrected to help fight a dangerous entity from beyond the galaxy's rim. Deepness takes place thousands of years earlier, when humanity was still stuck in the Slow Zone, and involves a pivotal event in Pham's life.

The Qeng Ho trading fleet have discovered that alien life exists on a planet orbiting the On/Off Star. This star flares into brightness for sixty years or so, and then dies to a cinder for two hundred years, flaring again at the end of that time. The spider-like species on the planet, Arachna, is just emerging from Victorian era technology, led by Sherkaner Underhill, a precocious young scientist who gives his government the key to bringing the downfall of their enemies. Beyond the rewards of contacting just the third alien race found to exist by mankind, the Qeng Ho feel that a race on the cusp of spacefaring technology is ideal to contact and begin a trading alliance with. Plus, there's some reason to believe that Arachna might hold some secrets to even higher technology, since it's questionable whether the Spiders could have evolved there naturally.

Pham Nuwen had tried - and failed - to unify the Qeng Ho into a quasi-governmental entity for the good of all humanity, a task which proved too much given the limits of lightspeed and therefore the vast time scales involved. He is recruited for this mission by one of his one-time proteges, but chooses to keep a low-profile. This proves to be a good idea when, upon arriving at the On-Off Star, the Qeng Ho encounter the Emergents, a colony of humans who have recently regained spaceflight and who are themselves interested in Arachna. The encounter becomes a violent one, and the Qeng Ho narrowly lose the battle and are forced into servitude by the Emergents, who need the Qeng Ho to survive until the Spiders develop to the point that they have enough technology to repair the fleet so they all can return to their home space.

Vinge's 1980s novels - The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime - took a single fascinating science fictional idea and explored it to its logical extremes. His 1990s novels are packed with a myriad of interesting idea, and still explore most of them to a satisfying depth, which naturally results in much longer novels.

Nearly half the book is dedicated to the Spiders, who we see up-close and follow for a full generation. Vinge explores their life cycle, including the long hybernation during the dark years of their star, and the impact that this has on their culture and society: Religious and cultural constructs are based around the Dark, seeing the Dark as something to be explored and used rather than just slept through is seen as near-heresy, and much of the surface infrastructure is destroyed whenever the star flares on, due to the massive heat. Much of this focuses on Sherkaner and his friends and family. Sherkaner is a true prodigy: Newton and Einstein rolled into one, he's the one "superhuman" character in the story, but has plenty of foibles to bring him down-to-earth. Reading about the Spiders is the most enjoyable part of the book

The story of the "lurkers" above the planet is less exciting, although it does have a key interesting idea: Focus. Focus is a virus which, when it successfully infects a person, causes them to focus obsessively and to the exclusion of nearly all else on their primary talent. It works best on scientific skills, but works on a few people with social talents as well. Focus, employed by the Emergents, allows them to combine the power and speed of a computer with the reasoning and intuitive skills of a tireless, dedicated human, although the human infected seems decidedly less "human" to the unfocused.

Pham sees focus as a new tool he could use to achieve his dream of a unified humanspace, and he plots over the long years, in his cover as an ill-tempered maintenance worker, to bring down the Emergents and bring the secret of Focus under his own control. Unfortunately for this goal, he allies himself with Ezr Vinh (yes, character names are one of the strengths of Vinge's books), the Emergent-appointed leader of the Qeng Ho, who himself want to return control of the expedition to the Qeng Ho, but who regards Focus as abomination.

The book largely is a waiting game: Pham and Ezr are endlessly plotting to bring down the Emergents, using some interesting tools that Pham unearths from old Qeng Ho records, all the while waiting for the Spiders to evolve to the point that they can be contacted (or, as seems likely, conquered by the Emergents). We're treated to an exploration of the Focused and how people react to them, and the humans' perceptions of the Spiders.

Unfortunately, all this waiting makes the book rather slow and dull in some places, and the ideas aren't quite as gosh-wow as in Vinge's previous books. It's all very understated, although enlivened by occasional flashbacks to Pham's early life and his efforts to unify the Qeng Ho. The book does have a satisfying climax, as the humans and Spiders finally come into contact, and the Qeng Ho/Emergent issues are resolved (or mostly resolved).

Ultimately, Vinge has done his usual fine job of constructing a large and complex world and presenting it in a believable manner, and his handling of his characters continues to grow and evolve (although I found it hard to find most of the human characters very likeable, whereas the Spiders are often charming; I suspect that Vinge put his heart into writing the Spiders, and found the humans just a construct to hang the plot on). But Deepness isn't the sort of ride that his earlier books are. It's more contemplative and patient, and I just didn't find that quite as rewarding.

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

Tor, HC, © 2001, 464 pp, ISBN #0-312-87373-5
Reviewed January 2002

This volume collects all of Vinge's published short fiction, save two stories which are in other volumes. The book effectively highlights Vinge's strength: Working from essential ideas to craft a story which explores the ramifications of those ideas. As seen in his novels, such as A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge is one of the best at plumbing the depths of his ideas to produce a workable universe based on the truly fantastic. In these stories, he creates lots of little universes from the same types of cloth.

The downside to this volume is that the universes are, indeed, little, and rarely afford Vinge the scope to really play with his material, so the stories herein vary widely in their quality.

At the low end of the spectrum are the stories whose ideas don't really seem worthy of Vinge's talents, such as "Apartness", exploring what sorts of people might, after a global holocaust, be forced to colonize an unhospitable place such as Antarctica. Or "The Whirligig of Time", considering the impact (so to speak) that atomic missiles able to escape the earth's atmosphere might have on future cultures.

Other misfires are stories which explore concepts of libertarian or anarchic capitalism, such as "The Ungoverned" - which incidentally occurs between his two novels in Across Realtime - which explores how protection and insurance companies might fill the roles of governmental military organizations; all seems to end well, but only after a lot of chaos sheds many gallons of blood. Or "Conquest by Default", where capitalist aliens assimilate Earth's governments into their culture of competing corporations. I found it hard to believe in the cultures in these stories, as it takes very careful construction of a radical capitalist culture to persuade me that such a society won't swiftly devolve into tyranny or utter chaos and destruction. (It's not clear to me how much Vinge believes in these sorts of politics as a viable alternative to the sorts of government we have now. Hopefully he's really just using these ideas as story springboards.)

The best stories in the collection are those whose ideas are both solid and perfectly suited to their length. Indeed, Vinge's first published work, "Bookworm, Run!", about an augmented chimpanzee, is a very effective exploration of the implications of raising a creature to a higher level of sentience. "Long Shot" is a rather distant (of necessity) consideration of the extremes humanity might have to go to in order to survive a sudden holocaust. And "Original Sin" works with the notion that even as humanity's frenetic pace and drive to succeed might scare older, wiser, more complacent races, there might be other races out there that would scare us in the same way. (This is perhaps the most hard-hitting idea in the collection, for its sheer, stark brutality.)

Then there are the stories which are more mature in their storytelling, moving beyond just the ideas to tell strong yarns as well. "The Blabber", which is a sort of sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep - even though it was written first - plays with some of the concepts in that novel in a rather different setting, leaving some interesting open questions at its conclusion. Hopefully Vinge will revisit this setting again sometime.

Then there's "Fast Times at Fairmont High", a new novella for this collection, about a near-future junior high school where everyone is wired into the global net, and teachers must pose new and challenging tests for their students to complete. The story's essential message seems to be that no matter how much specialized knowledge, general reasoning skills are always useful, and being presented with new, open-ended and unassisted situations is a good way to be pushed into developing such skills. Strangely, though, this message seems undercut by the last section of the story, and the central plot - in which the hero and heroine investigate the possibility that a Summer Movie is being prepped for filming in a nearby nature preserve, while the hero's best friend seems to be playing them for his own angle - is left strangely unresolved. Possible answers are suggested, but I didn't feel that the plot elements were truly resolved, and I found it disappointing as a result.

Of perhaps greatest interest for Vinge fans are Vinge's annotations of each story, explaining his thought processes and providing some context of his beliefs about the Singularity he believes technological progress is taking humanity towards, and how trying to work around this future led to his Fire universe. For serious Vinge fans, this is the most valuable part of the book.

As with most short story collections, the work here is erratic, and not always rewarding. It's not the best introduction to Vinge, but if you've enjoyed his other work, then you might find this worth a shot.

True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

Tor, TPB, © 2001, 352 pp, ISBN #0-312-86207-5
Reviewed June 2002

True Names isn't a novel or short story collection. Rather, it consists of Vinge's 1981 novella "True Names", and a set of essays written about subjects related to the story, and/or inspired by it.

"True Names" is about Roger Pollack, a well-to-do individual living in the early 21st century. In this wired world, Pollack is known on the "Other Plane" of the computer net as Mr. Slippery, a top-flight warlock (hacker) and member of one of the foremost covens of such. Unfortunately, the government have figured out Mr. Slippery's True Name, and captures him. But it's not him they want: They want his assistance in finding and stopping another warlock, the Mailman, who they suspect of far worse plots than anything the garden-variety warlocks have concocted. With no choice, Pollack agrees.

Pollack contacts the rest of his coven, which the Mailman - who only communicates through time delay - has recently joined. The Other Plane is perceived by most as a fantasy world, and the details of the network are mapped to concepts familiar to that milieu. Individuals on the Other Plane adopt new identities, but keep their true names secret, since - as Roger has found out - blackmail is all too easy when someone knows who you are in the real world.

Mr. Slippery finds an ally in his fellow coven member Erythrina, who also suspects the Mailman, but he finds that several other coven members have agreed to aid the Mailman in his plans, whatever they are. With the help of the government, Slip and Ery march towards a transcendent conflict with the Mailman, and have to deal with the ramifications of their actions afterwards.

"True Names" was prescient in its day, foreseeing cyberspace and virtual reality in all its glory several years before William Gibson's Neuromancer, and building on 70s stories like John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider. Vinge correctly understood the importance of secrecy and cryptography, the coming pervasiveness of computer networks, and how the personal computer would open up the world of computing to the everyman.

On the other hand, I've never really believed in the sort of virtual reality portrayed by Gibson, by Vinge here, or by Melissa Scott in Trouble and Her Friends, as the interpretation of the virtual world into real world paradigms never struck me as likely. More probable, I think, we'll adapt to understand the net as a set of paradigms unto itself. I also think Vinge shortchanges the security efforts of government and corporate computer systems to protect against outsiders doing what Vinge's heroes do here (though he does take paints to note that the government is generally behind the warlocks in their networking savvy).

Nonetheless, "True Names" is still a lively and grand tale which stands up surprisingly well to 20 years of computer evolution.

The essays preceding the story are often interesting, but they get to feel like a one-trick pony after a while. Several essays discuss cryptography, and often cover similar ground. Timothy May's "True Nyms and Crypto Anarchy" is the essential one, despite its libertarian bias in favor of private individuals using cryptography to throw off the shackles of government and corporations. I think it underestimates both the authority of those oppressors, and the evils that a true laissez-faire capitalist market can promulgate. Richard Stallman's "The Right to Read" seems to more realistically (if melodramatically) assess these risks.

Unfortunately, the essays seem to give the short shrift to some of "True Names"'s other ideas, such as the value (and drawbacks) of secret identities, and the impact of the net on social interactions. Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer's "Habitat: Reports from an Online Community" takes a stab at this issue, but its 1980s technology feels woefully outdated even compared to early-90s MUD communities, never mind modern Instant Messaging or adventure gaming. These themes, even more than the cryptographic elements, are the underpinnings of Vinge's story.

All-in-all, while there are some meaty ideas in the essays, they are not indispensable, and I would have been happier having "True Names" included as the cornerstone of The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, and dispensed with the ancillary material here.

Rainbows End

Tor, HC, © 2006, 364 pp, ISBN #0-312-85684-9
Reviewed May 2006

Rainbows End is Vinge's first new novel in 7 years, and in it he turns away from the far-future settings of his previous three books to look at a story set (mostly) in San Diego, California in 2025. Robert Gu, Sr., is a recovering Alzheimer's patient. Once a great poet - but something of a lousy human being - Robert returns from the darkness to find himself behind-the-times, living with his son and daughter-in-law, and without his aptitude for words - but with a new aptitude for devices. His granddaughter, Miri, tries to help, but Robert still clings to aspects of his rough personality and rebuffs her forcefully. He does, meanwhile, enroll in classes at nearby Fairmont High School, where he meets Juan Orozco, a young man of few evident skills, but a peculiar interesting in the adult students in his classes.

This is the small tableau against which a larger game is being played: The book opens with a European security agency detecting signs of a form of mind control being tested, and several officials at non-American security agencies pool their resources to try to find out who's behind it, fearful that any step that one of the superpowers takes could result in the end of the world. They hire an agent named only Rabbit to look into things, and Rabbit's oblique tactics rope several of our heroes into the effort in an all-too-exciting game of multiple sides not really knowing who exactly is on the other side.

I will admit that I am not much of a fan of near-future science fiction, for some reason. Maybe it hits too close to home that it doesn't generally provide the level of escapism or ideas content that I demand from science fiction. So even though I'm a big fan of Vinge's work, this was a difficult obstacle for me to overcome.

That said, as usual it feels like Vinge is operating a step or two ahead of other authors working the same territory as whatever his latest novel is at any given time. Vinge displays a playful sense of humor (especially in chapter titles such as "You Can't Ask Alice Anymore" and "How-To-Survive-The-Next-Thirty-Minutes.pdf") which feels both clever and unforced. His narrative style remains straightforward but is still at times quite powerful; I was especially moved by his early descriptions of Robert Gu coming out of his Alzheimer's-induced haze.

The setting of Rainbows End is in a sense taking the essential premise of cyberpunk one step further, showing the seamless integration of the coming technological revolutions into human life and culture, and how it affects the old and the young, the powerful and the common, all without taking the technology too far. The book's plot isn't about some new piece of technology creating a new revolution (the implication is there, but even in real life the implication is always there), it's about humans living in the world around them. Vinge's stories always tend to be less about taking the next step than showing how people deal with already having taken the next step. This theme can be drawn at least as far back as his novella "True Names".

That said, the story overall didn't wow me. While the presentation of the technology felt much more realistic than many depictions of cyberspace - Vinge understands that the virtual world has physical computers and networks as its underpinnings - a realistic view of technology isn't really an exciting take on technology. I enjoyed and was impressed with the way the principle figures in the cloak-and-dagger games contrived their plans and manipulated others to do their bidding, but that didn't make the book for me either. And I was disappointed that some of the characters didn't have proper denouements to their story arcs (in particular I was hoping to learn a lot more about Rabbit).

Ultimately what makes the story work is the lively narrative and the likable characters in the form of Robert Gu and his family and friends. They have flaws and foibles and make mistakes, but I was rooting for them to work things out. So overall I enjoyed the book, but I was disappointed that it didn't push the envelope further than it did. Vinge is a true heavyweight among science fiction authors, and he's one of the few who can write a book like this and make me wonder, "Maybe he had some purpose to the story that I'm just not grasping." But Rainbows End isn't the sort of book I'm likely to be thinking about for years to come, like some of his earlier works.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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