Saturday, September 23, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge is not terribly prolific but the science fiction he produces is among the best in the genre. The novel pictured above, A Fire Upon the Deep, is easily one of the best SF novels I've ever read. Here's the basic set-up of the novel:
An expedition from Straumli Realm, an ambitious young human civilization in the high Beyond, investigates a five-billion-year-old data archive in the low Transcend that offers the possibility of unimaginable riches. The expedition's facility, High Lab, is gradually compromised by a dormant superintelligence within the archive later known as the Blight. However, shortly before the Blight's final "flowering", two self-aware entities created similarly to the Blight plot to aid the humans before the Blight can escape.
Recognizing the danger of what they have awakened, the researchers at High Lab attempt to flee in two ships, one carrying all the adults and the second carrying all the children in "coldsleep boxes". Suspicious, the Blight discovers that the first ship contains a data storage device in its cargo manifest; assuming it contains information that could harm it, the Blight destroys the ship. The second ship escapes. The Blight assumes that it is no threat, but later realizes that it is actually carrying away a "countermeasure" against it.
The ship lands on a distant planet with a medieval-level civilization of dog-like creatures, dubbed "Tines", who live in packs as group minds. Upon landing, however, the two surviving adults are ambushed and killed by Tine fanatics known as Flenserists, in whose realm they have landed. The Flenserists capture a young boy named Jefri Olsndot and his wounded sister, Johanna. While Jefri is taken deeper into Flenserist territory, Johanna is rescued by Tine pilgrims who witnessed the ambush and deliver her to a neighboring kingdom ruled by a Tine named Woodcarver. The Flenserists tell Jefri that Johanna had been killed by Woodcarver and exploit him in order to develop advanced technology (such as cannon and radio communication), while Johanna and the knowledge stored in her "dataset" device help Woodcarver rapidly develop in turn.
And at that point, the plot's just getting started! The Tines--where each "person" comprises a group mind of 4–8 members, connected by ultrasonic waves, and each "soul" can survive and evolve by adding members to replace those who die--are one of the most fascinating and truly alien races I've encountered in an SF novel. Very, very highly recommended.

"Fire" is the first of three novels in Vinge's "Zones of Thought" series. The prequel, also an outstanding novel in its own right, is A Deepness in the Sky. The direct sequel, The Children of the Sky, is weaker but still interesting. 

Another outstanding Vinge novel is Rainbow's End. I don't think I've read a more convincing social and technological extrapolation to the near future of existing computer technologies (Vinge is a computer science professor, now retired). Finally, Vinge's early short fiction is generally credited with being the first to come up with the concept of "cyberspace". His excellent short fiction has now been collected into a very fine anthology

If you haven't read Vinge yet, you're in for a real treat. Go for it!

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