Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Single Volume Distillation of a Genre

Being a nerdy, bookish sort, I have been commenting at the Tor Books website for a while. It's not too difficult to figure out my pseudonym, because I am a huge Jack Vance fan. First things first, friend of the blog Robyn Bennis has a book published, so here's a hearty high-five and an exhortation for everyone to buy her book.

Secondly, the Tor book club selection for the month is Vernor Vinge's amazing A Fire Upon the Deep. While I had been aware of the book for a while, I put off reading it until last year. While I am partially kicking myself for not reading it sooner, I am also glad that I put off reading the book for so long because the book is especially rewarding for readers who are aware of all science-fiction traditions. A Fire Upon the Deep is a one-volume distillation of the entire genre of science fiction, masquerading as a rip-roaring galactic adventure novel. Back in 1992, when it was published, I hadn't read enough of the genre to fully appreciate this trait of the book.

Before I go into a breakdown of the book's shout-outs to the genre, I have to get one thing out of the way- I certainly do not love the central trope of the novel... the notion that there are different Zones of Thought operating under different rules of nature. Yeah, I'm of the opinion that there's one reality, which permeates the universe, and things really only seem outrageous in the vicinity of black holes. In Vinge's fictional galaxy, the usual science-fantasy tropes are inverted: the Galactic Center is the 'Unthinking Depths', where sentience dulls and dies, and space travel slows to a crawl. The Slow Zone, where Earth lies, or lay in the distant past, is the next layer, where faster-than-light travel is impossible and artificial intelligence difficult to develop. The next layer, the Beyond, is where the whiz-bang space-opera stuff can occur, with faster-than-light travel and remarkable displays of sentience are the norm. Beyond the Beyond is the Transcend, where vast intelligences of great power (though typically of short lifespan) can develop. As one moves away from the core, one's potential increases, until a sort of demigodhood can be achieved.

The story starts out with a team of scientists working at the edge of the Transcend, who unearth an Eldritch Abomination straight out of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror tale. After releasing this malevolent power, the valiant scientists attempt to contain it while sending a husband-and-wife team to escape with the research facility's children to a planet closer to the Slow Zone, where it is hoped that their pursuer's vast puissance will be blunted. What follows is a disastrous First Contact, with the refugees falling into the hands of a bunch of fascistic religious fanatics and falling victim to the classic Simpson's Halloween episode gag 'your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons':

The aliens are doglike creatures which, while individually not very intelligent, can achieve an intellectual capacity equal to that of a human in groups of more than four individuals, but more than eight individuals lead to confusion. The individuals joining to form a group-mind communicate through sound, produced by a series of tympanic membranes. The initial protagonist of the story, an adolescent girl, dubs these creatures 'Tines', after the clawlike weapon that one of them uses to strike down her father... the name is an elegant one, though, as the individual creatures work in concert, like the tines of a fork, to produce one functioning entity. With a group intellect made up of a succession of individuals, the group intellects can last for hundreds of years. With his 'tines', Vinge, like Stanley G. Weinbaum created aliens that pass John W. Campbell's challenge: "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man."

Not all of the aliens are hostile- the human protagonists just had to fall into the clutches of the worst of the worst of them. Vinge introduces other witnesses to the spaceship's landing, ones motivated by curiosity, rather than fanatical rage:

"You're a pilgrim. You've traveled the world ... since the beginning of time, you'd have us believe. How far do your memories really go back?"

Given the situation, Wickwrackrum was inclined to honesty. "Like you'd expect: a few hundred years. Then we're talking about legends, recollections of things that probably happened, but with the details all mixed and muddled."

"Well, I haven't traveled much, and I'm fairly new. But I do read. A lot. There's never been anything like this before. That is a
made thing down there. It came from higher than I can measure. You've read Aramstriquesa or Astrologer Belelele? You know what this could be?"

Wickwrackrum didn't recognize the names. But he was a pilgrim. There were lands so far away that no one spoke any language he knew. In the Southseas he met folk who thought there was no world beyond their islands and who ran from his boats when he came ashore. Even more, one part of him had been an islander and had watched that coming ashore.

He stuck a head into the open and looked again at the fallen star, the visitor from farther than he had ever been ... and he wondered where this pilgrimage might end.

What follows is a picaresque Planetary Romance, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett, with the scriber and the pilgrim saving the strange, bipedal alien princess and whisking her off to the relative safety of an old friend of the pilgrim.

The novel follows several narrative arcs, each having different protagonists- there's the librarian who works at a central relay station of a vast galactic network reminiscent of the web in a cyberpunk novel by Gibson or Sterling, who teams up with a space-adventurer straight out of a Poul Anderson or Robert Heinlein space opera, rescued or reconstituted like Mary Shelley's monster from an ancient derelict spacecraft that had wandered perilously far into the Slow Zone because the crew fell victim to genre savvy, in order to track down the escape craft which had escaped the abomination.

Along the way, we have parallel plot threads, as the would-be rescuers evade pursuit while the stranded children learn how to interact with the alien natives, with suspense building as the reader is caught in the middle knowing that a major clash is inevitable. To heighten the suspense, there is an arms race, as one warring faction figures out how to use a child's laptop computer incorporated into a toy while another faction receives directions via FTL communication. There are strange aliens brought into sentience through cybernetic interfaces like the species in David Brin's 'Uplift' novels. The human population of the galaxy has spread through fits and starts, descents into barbarism and rediscoveries of space travel, reminiscent of the lost human colonies that Jack Vance wrote about. There are beautiful, xenophobic aliens who commit atrocities and brave space admirals who try to fend them off.

Vinge presents the reader with a head-spinning variety of cultures and concepts, with an occasional punch to the gut... oh, here's a loving couple who love their children and their friends' children so they do anything to save them and WHAM! Hey, nice star-sector spanning society of humans and aliens living in harmony, be a shame if something would happen to it... You really grew to like that character? WHACK! Oh, and his death is going to be a gut-punch to that other sympathetic character, and saddle her with a guilt trip.

The novel is a bildungsroman, a horror tale, a romance, a war story, a chase narrative, a picaresque, a thriller... it really does serve to tie the genre together. It's like a greatest hits medley that nevertheless remains original. I heartily recommend it, and will be following along with the 'book club' reading of it.

Oh, and everybody check out Robyn's book.

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