The story is about two humans, Pham and Ravna, and two Skode Rider aliens, Blueshell and Greenstalk, escaping the destruction of Relay and racing to Tines World to rescue children and retrieve the Countermeasure. Pham is a reconstructed man, resurrected and periodically controlled by a Power seeking to counter the Blight. Ravna’s a simple librarian, and the Riders are traders and owners of the ship Out of Band II. There is also a parallel story happening on Tines World involving two human children Jefri and Joanna and the Tines they encounter, namely Peregrin, Woodcarver, Mr Steel and Amdi. Like Rainbow’s End, Vinge ramps up the suspense and action to the very end, with two factions on Tines World starting a war and the chase of the Out of Band II across the Zones to Tines World in search of the Countermeasure to stop the Blight. The Blight is a super-intelligence mistakenly released by humans from an ancient data archive. It is a Power bent on domination of the upper Zones of the galaxy. It learns of the Countermeasure and through it’s proxies must notably the Skode Riders, attempts to obtain or destroy it before OOB2 reaches it. Fleets of ships race to the bottom of the Beyond. It concludes with Woodcarver winning the battle over Mr Steel, Blueshell sacrificing itself to rescue Jefri and Amdi and Pham dying as a result of successfully using the Countermeasure. The Countermeasure has the effect of pushing the Slow Zone enough to entrap the Blight.
Vinge creates a Universe far into our future. Humanity is spread out among the stars but is only a minor species among millions. The Galaxy is roughly divided into “Zones of Thought”, where near the galactic core exists the “unthinking depths” and as one progresses outwards passes through “The Slowness” (where old Earth is located), “The Beyond” and finally “Transcendence”. Each of these is further divided into lower, middle and upper bands. To become a “Power” is the ultimate achievement for transcendental beings. The evolution of all species is to progress through these zones to eventually achieve god-like status as beings in the Upper Transcendence. Speculation is that the Zones act as a kind of protection for less developed species from more advanced ones. Vinge uses an analogy of a deep ocean where beings of unimaginable capabilities exist above the surface, but their ability to influence other species diminishes the deeper they need to go. Technology itself is affected by these zones, most importantly the ability to travel and communicate faster than light. Ultradrive and ultrawave (FTL travel and communication) are possible in the Beyond and above, but the speed of light reigns supreme in the Slowness (hence the name). Obviously lack of FTL technology greatly hampers a civilization’s ability to extend beyond it’s own solar system, but doesn’t stop them.
What I enjoyed about this world-building was the sense of scope – humanity is young and insignificant in the grand scope of things. The sense of time – recorded communication among different species in the galaxy has existed for Billions of years. The “Net of a Million Lies” of ultrawave communication relays that allows one corner of the galaxy to communicate with another has existed for eons. Passages of Net communications look very much like usenet/newgroup posts back in the BBS days (book was written in the early Nineties). Complete star faring civilizations have come and gone with their complete history chronicled before homo sapiens even existed.
I also liked the race of dog-like aliens called the Tines. Based on a pack-mind, where a sentient being consists of four to eight individuals. Each member contributes to the intelligence and personality of the aggregate (much like The Gods Themselves). The pack communicates via thought at a limited range of no more than 20 meters or so. As a result, packs cannot mingle because the mind noise causes the aggregate being to dissolve into individuals, whom by themselves are wild simpletons. Death of a being takes on a different meaning since the intelligence and personality of a pack can suffer the loss of an individual or several since it can incorporate new compatible members throughout its life. Full death is referred to as “Souldeath”. Woodcarver and Peregrine are Tines who have continuously lived via generations of members for close to 500 years. Tines are intelligent, fast learners, and excellent mimics. They are hampered by their lack of hands (use coordinated mouths instead) and inability to work closely together.
In summary the best parts of this book are the ideas around the Zones of Thought and the alien race of the Tines. The upper Zones allow for fantastic, magical abilities (FTL!) yet Rainbow’s End almost felt more futuristic as personal technology was integrated into daily existence and in this book not so much – the kids have a dataset (think clamshell tablet), but that’s the extent of it. People are far more dependent upon personal technology even today and passing into The Slowness would have rendered this advanced technology useless and had a profound impact on people themselves. Adding these details would have really driven home the fact that the lower Zones are really places to avoid, and not just because of the lack of FLT. I also enjoyed the book’s sense of scope is broad – in time and space and humans are a minor player on the galactic stage.
(Amazon) A Fire Upon the Deep