A Fire Upon the Deep
is the first book in the Zone of Thought
science fiction series by Vernor Vinge. Published in 1993, it was named the Hugo Award for best novel of the year because of its complex, detailed, and thought-provoking dramatic plot about a galactic war taking place thousands of years in the future. Vinge published a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep
called A Deepness in the Sky
in 1999, and then a third book, The Children of the Sky
, which ended the three-book series in 2011.
The novel is set in a galaxy made up of four different “Zones of Thought.” The innermost zone is called the Unthinking Depths and is defined by its lack of intelligent life. It is considered the innermost zone and is surrounded by the Slow Zone, the birthplace of humanity. Although Earth is not a part of the novel, it is understood that the Slow Zone is the old Earth. There is some intelligence in the Slow Zone, but not the most modern artificial intelligence that exists during the present-day time of the novel. In this zone, communication is less than the speed of light, which is possible in the other more advanced zones.
The next Zone beyond the Slow Zone is called the Beyond, and this is where artificial intelligence dominates. Travel and communication both happen here faster than the speed of light. There are some human beings in this zone, but all originate from a single Norwegian ethnic group that managed to arrive from the Slow Zone.
The fourth and outermost zone is called Transcend which is where the superintelligent creatures live.
The plot of the novel describes the ambitious activities of Straumli Realm, a human civilization that lives in the highest part of the Beyond Zone, near the Transcend Zone. They are taking part in an expedition to investigate a data archive but become compromised by the release of an ancient superintelligent power known as the Blight. The Blight begins to take over the High Lab where the Straumli Realm is doing their research. The humans attempt to escape in two ships, one for adults and one for children. The one for adults ends up being destroyed by the Blight but the children survive.
The ship filled with the children crash lands onto a planet filled with “Tines,” which are dog-like creatures that have group minds. The two surviving adults that were accompanying the children on the ship are killed on this planet by the Flenserists, a group of inhabitants that are fanatical about the Tines. The Flenserists kidnap a brother and sister, Jefri and Johana. Some of the Tines rescue Johana, but Jefri is taken further into the lair of the Flenserists. They lie to him and tell him Johana is dead. They try to get him to give up secrets in order to develop new technology like radio communication.
Meanwhile, the crashed ship has been in sleeper mode and is sending out a signal. The signal eventually reaches a benign entity called “Old One” through a galactic communication system called Relay. Old One creates a human agent called Pham Nuwen. Human employees on Relay see the sleeper signal in the world of the Tines and they get permission to investigate the human ship to see what kind of equipment was taken from the High Lab facility on the expedition from Straumli Realm.
Before the investigation can start, there is an attack on Relay by the Blight which kills the Old One. The Blight continues to take over people and archives. Eventually humans come to the Tines world and attempt to battle the Blight, led by Pham Nuwen, and they send forces as far as the Slow Zone in order to get the Blight under control. This countermeasure of Pham Nuwen’s destroys many civilizations and causes trillions of deaths. He ultimately dies himself as he protects the galaxy from the Blight.
The prequel, A Deepness in the Sky
, tells more about Pham’s life many years earlier when humans were making contact for the first time with an alien race. The third book, The Children of the Sky
, takes place ten years after the Blight and tells the story of the power struggle that emerges amidst the humans and the Tines attempting to live in peace.
Author Vernor Vinge is a former math and computer science professor at San Diego State University. He retired in 2000 to devote his time to writing. His science fiction writing is considered revolutionary since he is credited for inventing the concept of a “technological singularity.” He was also one of the first writers to use cyberspace in a work of fiction as he did in his novella True Names
, published in 1981. Vinge’s ex-wife, Joan D. Vinge, is also an accomplished science fiction writer.