A Fire Upon the Deep may be the most exciting and important of all modern space operas. Latter day purveyors of galactic epics like Alastair Reynolds and Pete Hamilton doubtless cut their teeth on it. Published at the advent of the information age, when the Internet was in most people's future and even mobile phones were still a little exotic, Vernor Vinge had his finger on its pulse. While it isn't accurate to say the book predicted the Internet — the geek elite were, after all, long entrenched in Usenet newsgroups even then — it can be said to have accurately bullseyed what became the Internet's character. While it's been a most wonderful innovation, certainly the most important epoch-making technology since the printing press, it is also, in many ways, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a home for every crank, political extremist, sicko or malcontent you could imagine, giving them access to an audience they'd never have enjoyed otherwise. When Vinge nicknamed his fictitious interstellar network the "Net of a Million Lies," he saw what was coming, even if a simple grasp of human nature at its dark core was as visionary as he had to be about it.
Superficially, A Fire Upon the Deep is a rousing space chase, with an impressively intricate plot that allows for both an epic and intimate scale. Set tens of thousands of years in the future, the tale establishes an interstellar culture comprised of countless sentient species living within a galaxy subdivided into "Zones of Thought." This is a fascinating concept, the origin and nature of which Vinge never fully spells out, but which nonetheless succeeds in anchoring some of the book's core themes, involving what defines sentience itself, and whether too much knowledge (never mind a little) is a dangerous thing. The closer one travels to the galactic core, the less technology and even intelligence are able to thrive. The further out you get towards the galaxy's edge, one advances through the Slow Zone, the Low and High Beyond, and finally into the Transcend, where you'll find lifeforms that are as close to godlike as you'd care to come. Naturally, the bulk of sentient civilizations are found in the Low and High Beyonds. While the old adage has it that whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, it seems to me you'd have to be pretty mad to begin with to want to be a god at all.
The story begins when an incautious group of human researchers, seeking to bootstrap themselves, uncover an eons-old data archive on the fringes of the Transcend and decide to plumb its secrets. In doing so, they unwittingly awaken the Blight, a dormant, malevolent intelligence that wastes no time in wreaking merciless havoc across the High Beyond. But a single weapon, a countermeasure, has been spirited aboard a vessel escaping the archive with hundreds of the human researchers' children in cold sleep. This vessel has crash-landed on a pre-tech world deep in the Low Beyond, and a small crew of humans and aliens — among them, humans Ravna Bergsndot and Pham Nuwen — are desperately racing to reach this world before the Blight can overtake them. In its way, it's almost Tolkienesque.
The world of the Tines, where the escaping vessel has crashed, is Vinge's creative masterstroke. The Tines are a wolflike race in which packs of creatures, usually numbering three to six or more, collectively form a single individual. They're not a hive-mind, but more of a gestalt. One dog on its own can barely function. Many of them together pooling their minds (where one dog might have stronger mentation for one faculty, like speech, with the others being differently advantaged) can make for not only a powerfully intelligent creature, but, after a fashion, a nearly immortal one, as the pack identity can continue as older members die to be replaced by pups. They're like the living equivalent of software, forever updating and patching.
Not only has Vinge come up with fantastically inspired aliens here, he's made them convincing and sympathetic as characters. (Though I do confess, and it may be a failure of imagination on my part, I often found it hard to visualize them using complex tools like bows and arrows the way Vinge has them doing.) The ship carrying the Blight countermeasure has plunged smack into a medieval society ignorant of the inhabited galaxy all around it, let alone the devastating threat descending upon it, and embroiled in its own civil war. But no sooner have the Tines come to terms with the reality of these strange beings from the sky than each faction — one led by Woodcarver, the other by the expansionist tyrant Steel — attempts to use the situation to its advantage. The only two human survivors of the crash are children, Jefri and Johanna Olsndot. (Their parents survived the crash only to be killed by terrified Tines investigating the wreckage.) Johanna has been spirited away by Woodcarver, while Jefri is in the clutches of the villainous Steel. But it's Jefri that Ravna and Pham are able to communicate with as they near the planet, and that gives Steel the chance to try to sway the incoming ship into providing him with new technologies to vanquish his enemy. Among the Tines, the children will find friends and foes, sometimes not realizing which is which until a friend is lost or a foe is unmasked.
The story has a heart and a warmth that goes a long way toward dispelling the stereotype of hard SF as a cold, tech-obsessed fiction bereft of humanity or intimacy. But the hardcore crowd needn't fear that Vinge hasn't done due diligence in realizing a technologically plausible future. Posts to the Known Net (which, as a dramatic device, offer insight into the breadth of the story's social and political environment without shooting the story off into dozens of unwieldy subplots, in a way guys like Hamilton often can't resist) resemble Usenet posts of the early 90's. For his story, Vinge conceives of this as a necessary tech tradeoff, a result of bandwidth restrictions inherent in FTL transmission. It's a devilishly smart notion that's helped the book avoid the looming and bitterly ironic fate of a lot of hard science fiction, that of futuristic stories which feel dated years after their release.
A riveting, sometimes even old-fashioned saga of action, courage, betrayal, heroism and dastardly evil, Vinge's Hugo-winning crowd pleaser is the kind of spectacle that made all of us fall in love with SF in the first place. Vast, deep, and aflame with its sense of wonder, A Fire Upon the Deep fully lives up to the grandeur of its title.
Followed by a prequel, A Deepness in the Sky, and — 19 years later — a sequel, The Children of the Sky.