A Fire Upon the Deep

Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep is a 1992 science fiction novel by Vernor Vinge. It is a space opera involving superhuman intelligences, aliens, faster-than-light warfare, love, betrayal, genocide, and a galactic Usenet (an early Internet discussion system).

The story is set in Vinge’s ‘Zones of Thought’ in which the results of technological singularities (the achievement of greater-than-human intelligence) are spread out in a predicable pattern: In the ‘Unthinking Depths’ near the core of the galaxy, no intelligence is possible; in the ‘Slow Zone,’ where Earth is, general relativity applies (i.e. faster-than-light travel is impossible); the ‘Beyond’ allows faster-than-light travel and antigravity, and in the ‘Transcend,’ mysterious god-like entities roam the cosmos. Thus, as you head out of the Milky Way, you see the same progression of advancing technologies in other galaxies.

In the Slow Zone, Vinge posits that human technological advancement reached an apex with the ‘Age of Failed Dreams,’ during which it was discovered that faster than light travel, immortality, strong AI, and a few other things are impossible. ‘

‘A Fire upon the Deep’ mostly takes place in the Beyond. The novel opens a human expedition to the Transcend that inadvertently releases the Blight, a malign artificial intelligence which has been dormant for five billion years. Vinge describes the evolution of this superintelligence as exponentially accelerating developmental stages, culminating in a transcendent, nigh-omnipotent power that is unfathomable to mere humans. Shortly before its final ‘flowering,’ the changes in a single minute of the Blight’s life are said to exceed those of 10,000 years of human civilization.

The only survivors of the expedition are one family, who flee to a backwater world in the Slow Zone, where both parents are immediately killed and the children sucked into the power struggles of the medieval-level alien natives. Meanwhile, the Blight is rampaging across the galaxy, so a second expedition is sent in search of the children, on the chance that their parents might also have found a counter-measure.

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