Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Fire Upon The Deep

by Vernor Vinge

This novel is a bit of a modern sci-fi classic by virtue of its original concepts. Vinge has heaps of cool ideas and in true old school sci-fi style spits them all out in direct but breathless and inelegant prose. A real geek book in other words. The story takes place in two parallel threads, the first taking place on a galactic scale, as human civilisation battles a super intelligent AI determined to enslave all life in the galaxy. The other follows a pair of human children shipwrecked on a medieval world, who hold the key to defeating the AI.

Vinge's most memorable idea is that of the Zones, in his story the galaxy is divided into concentric spheroid areas, with intelligence (both living and artificial) being enhanced in the outer ones and inhibited in the inner ones. In the central one anything living becomes too stupid to run a spaceship, and invariably crashes and dies. Anyone exiting the galaxy transcends to a higher state of being.

Vinge's second trippy and original idea involves the nature of the inhabitants of the medieval world that the children are stranded on. The native life form is incapable of intelligence on its on, but when grouped in a pack of three to six become a single entity. However the individuals must communicate with each other by talking, which means that if two groups get too close they lose their minds.

Vinge explores his ideas in plenty of detail, and fortunately the plot is engaging enough to support it. The ending was more than a little sappy and a touch predictable but the rest of the story is good in an 'exploding spaceship' kind of way. Especially as his no nonsense style is well suited to writing a tense, exciting action scene. So while the prose might be a little awkward in places the book is well deserving of its reputation by virtue of its originality and clever concept, and it's still a good read on account of its fast paced plot.

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