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Review: A Fire Upon the Deep: Special Edition 142

Posted by timothy
from the deeply-deep-deepness dept.
Robotech_Master writes "For a long time, A Fire Upon the Deep has been one of my favorite books. Combining interesting technological prognostication, fascinating concepts, amusing characters, and an enthralling story, this novel brings together science fiction and present-day science fact in a deeply compelling read. For a long time, this book had been available in electronic form from Palm Digital Media, and it was the first e-book I ever bought for my Palm PDA. Recently a new 'special edition' of the book was published electronically, containing the annotations that had previously only been available on the 1993 Hugo/Nebula CDROM, and I knew I had to make the purchase--and then, since I couldn't dig up any other mention of it on Slashdot, review it." Robotech Master warns that his (lengthy) review below of the updated version "contains some minor spoilers for plot, but not for ending."
A Fire Upon the Deep: Special Edition
author Vernor Vinge
pages file size: 1016K
publisher Tom Doherty Associates/Palm Digital Media
rating 10 out of 10 for quality; 7 out of 10 for format
reviewer Christopher E. Meadows
ISBN 0312703694
summary As rumors fly on the galactic netnews network, a desperate expedition races to a barbarian planet to rescue the children who might hold the key to saving the universe.

The Novel

It would not be exaggeration to call A Fire Upon the Deep one of the seminal SF novels of the digital age. While there had been many other books that depicted computer networks of the future, Fire was one of the first to present such a network in terms of its resemblance to USENET of the then-present-day.

A Fire Upon the Deep is set 38,000 years in the future on the outskirts of the galactic rim of the Milky Way. The galaxy is divided into several Zones of Thought, ranging from the Transcend on the farthest outskirts of the galaxy to the High and Low Beyond, the Slow Zone, and the Unthinking Depths at the galactic core.

Outside the galaxy, in the Transcend, lurk the superintelligent beings who have, well, Transcended--passed beyond normal mortal intelligence and become as unfathomable to normal humanity as we must be to animals. As one moves toward the center of the galaxy, the efficiency of thought--both biological and mechanical--decreases, as does the ability to travel faster than light. In the Slow Zone, FTL travel and data transmission is impossible, and the laws of physics limit travel to ramscoop speeds--and in the Unthinking Depths, even rational thought itself fades away. As one might imagine, most of the "civilized" races of the galaxy are found in the Beyond, between the Slow Zone and the Transcend. Here is where one small branch of humanity has found its way out of the Slow Zone and settled worlds named Sjandra Kei and the Straumli Realm.

And here is also where our story is set. In the opening pages of A Fire Upon the Deep, an ancient horror is revived by an incautious expedition of Straumli archaeologist-programmers investigating a long-lost treasure-trove just over the border of the Transcend. As the horror reaches out to take over civilization after civilization within the Beyond, it soon becomes clear that the only hope for the survival of independent thought in the Beyond lies with a makeshift space vessel that fled to a small uncharted planet in the low Beyond. This vessel, carrying a family of archaeologist-programmers and a cargo of cryogenically-hibernating children who were the only survivors of the Straumli catastrophe, holds the key to defeating the mysterious Blight.

Unfortunately, the parents of the family died soon after their arrival, and the two children ended up in the custody of rival barbarian forces: 14-year-old Johanna Olsndot with Woodcarver, a benevolent queen of a realm of learning and freedom; 7-year-old Jefri with the murderous tyrant Steel. And the expedition to rescue them, consisting of humans Ravna Bergsndot and Pham Nuwen, and Skrode Riders Blueshell and Greenstalk, has problems of its own. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints and multiple settings which grow closer together as the story draws to its inevitable conclusion.

One of the primary features of the Zones of Thought setting is the Known Net, the data network that connects all the civilized races of the Beyond and the Transcend. Although information technology out in these realms has progressed into true artificial intelligence, with all the technological advancement that implies, the nature of the FTL transmission method means that the network itself operates at bandwidth rates similar to those found in USENET circa 1990--meaning that, for most forms of long-distance communication, text (or its equivalent) is the order of the day for the transmission of the message--but then language transmission and filtration can be performed on the receiving end. (And when hundreds of civilizations are sharing the same data network, posting hundreds of millions of messages a day, both translation and filtration suddenly become very necessary.)

Setting this hard bandwidth limit was one of Vinge's ways of future-proofing the story, as well as making necessary the sort of USENET-like communication upon which a large part of the story depends--stripping the speed of communication down to the bare bones so that every bit counts. "Somewhere should make clear to the undiscerning reader that we can't have gosh-wow 1990 LAN stuff on the Known Net because of bandwidth and transmission delay problems," reads note 1160. With a USENET-style network in place, Vinge is free to homage the USENET of today (or, rather, of 1990) in subtle ways.

For example, one of the commonly-recurring themes throughout the book is that of identity and truth. One of the ways this theme is explored should be only too familiar to most Slashdot readers: the net is often called the Net of a Million Lies. Just as "on the Internet, no one can tell if you're a dog," on the Known Net nobody can tell what race you really are--only the one you say you are. Interspersed through the story are about a dozen USENET-style netnews posts, from sources considered reliable, questionable, or outright mysterious, asking (and trying to answer) many questions: are humans tools of the ravening Blight? Are they innocent dupes? Should they be wiped out? Who is the Blight? What does it want? What is really going on? Many conflicting and unexplained viewpoints are presented, and sorting out the truth is an important part of the story. (I have heard rumors that some of these posts were written based on the posting styles of well-known USENET kooks of the day, but the annotations failed to provide any proof of this.)

Vinge also makes a few cute little digs that only a net-user might get--such as when he refers to "chronic theorizers [as being] the sort of civilizations that get surcharged by newsgroup automation," when he names the starship in which our heroes travel the Out of Band II, or when he implies, via having translation programs work less efficiently the closer to the Slow Zone the starship approaches, that some of those strange, semi-intelligible posts that show up on USENET today might simply be the fault of a faulty translator. (The notes reveal that he considered using some even more familiar net slang, such as "IMHO," but decided against it.)

One of the other interesting elements of the story is the alien race, the Tines, with whom Johanna and Jefri are stranded. The Tines are pack creatures, something like a cross between a wolf and a seal, who communicate among themselves using ultrasonic frequencies. Instead of being a personality in a single body, the personality of these Tines is spread across multiple members, and can change when members die or join. The concept behind these beings is fascinating to me, and I would like to read more stories involving them.

The story of A Fire Upon the Deep is told from multiple viewpoints, switching back and forth from Tines' World to Out of Band II at a rapid enough pace to keep tensions high and prevent things from getting too confusing (though there are still subtleties that didn't come out for me until several rereads). At the root, it's a rollicking USENET-informed space opera crossed with a bit of Swiss Family Robinson and a dogs-and-their-boy story. If I have one minor complaint about it, it is that most of the alien races seen in the story -- whether it's the group-mind Tines, the Transcended Powers, or even the Blight -- seem, with one or two exceptions, to have altogether too human a viewpoint. (Though Vinge does point out in the notes that the ones who don't have that kind of viewpoint probably wouldn't have much to do with those who did anyway.) But as quibbles go, that one is so low on the scale that it hardly even registers. If you haven't read this book, go out and get it right away--or stay right where you are and order it from Palm Digital Media (see my comments on format below). You won't be disappointed.

Introduction and Annotations

The annotations in the back of the book are not the only reason to buy this book, of course. There is also a fairly lengthy introduction that goes into the history of the annotated version of the book, and into prognostications about what the future of prose might be. Since A Fire Upon the Deep was written several years before the wide advent of HTML, the story itself centers on USENET as the galactic communication medium...but the introduction was written just as HTML and hypertext were starting to get wider exposure, and Vinge seemed to think that hypertext was the future of fiction. "I believe hypertext fiction will ultimately be a new art form," Vinge wrote, "as different from novels as motion pictures are from oil paintings." Vinge has left this 1993 introduction much the same as when he originally wrote it, even though his predictions have not yet shown much sign of coming to pass.

Calling this special edition of A Fire Upon the Deep "annotated" is really a slight misnomer; for a book to be "annotated" (as in The Annotated Alice) usually means that someone has gone through it after the fact, adding clarifying comments that expand the reader's understanding. That is mostly not the case here.

These annotations are not notes to add explanations (save for a very few that Vinge added in after the fact for that purpose); they are short, often cryptic notes from Vinge to himself (just as a programmer comments his code to remind himself what he's written and why), or from some of the consultants who helped Vinge thrash out the story, pointing out awkward phrases, words that should be (or have been) spell-checked, mathematical and astronomical calculations (how large and close the Tines' moon needs to be to provide months of a certain length, for instance), inconsistencies, problems that need clarification, possibilities for sequels, text fragments that did not make the final cut, and story ideas. And there are quite a few of them--going by the progress bar on the reader, the notes section is about 150% of the length of the story section.

Because these notes were made at different points during the drafting process, it is not unusual for them to refer to entirely different parts of the book--a note several chapters in talking about the ending, or a note 3/4 of the way through the book suggesting that it might be a great idea if Ravna actually came from Sjandra Kei (which was revealed as soon as we first met her in the story itself). And some of the notes cryptically refer to characters or events no longer even present in the text. This being the case, readers new to this story are strongly advised to read the book straight through at least once before venturing into the annotations at all, because otherwise some major revelations will be spoiled.

If you're expecting great insights in these notes...well, there are some--into how Vinge writes, as well as into the story itself. But the notes are far more often cryptic or even meaningless, so don't be disappointed if they aren't all you'd hoped for.

Some of the notes are quite funny, such as one of Vinge's consultants' complaint about the use of the term "member" for an individual animal in Tine packs. "Except for what the Victorians did with 'member,' this term seems perfect," Vinge replied. "Suggestions?" The consultant backed down and said, "It's okay as long as you don't use it for anything else."

There is also a noteworthy footnote from Vinge regarding a cascade failure of interconnected computer systems:

"Ug. Unfortunately, in 1992 how many people would believe that such apparently unconnected failures are reasonable? There'll be a period of time where this may seem incredible. (And then after 1996 or so, maybe it'll just be a cliche of the everyday news.)"

He might have been off by a year or two, but an argument could still be made that he nearly predicted the Y2K scare.

The Format

The annotated version of A Fire Upon the Deep has an interesting history. The annotations were, of course, created by Vinge as part of the process of writing the book itself. In 1993, Brad Templeton of ClariNet suggested including them on a special Hugo/Nebula Award CD-ROM he was preparing--and so they were, along with a couple of illustrations and a low-resolution Quicktime or AVI movie. The movie was a brief recording of Vernor Vinge himself saying hello (and revealing in so doing that his name actually rhymes with "Benji," not "hinge"), and that he wondered what future entities would think when they viewed this time capsule from the dawn of the digital age. (However, because the CD-ROM has since become as rare as hen's teeth, the likeliest answer is "not much.") What's more, since this CD was made while HTML was still catching on as a hypertext format, the novel and annotations were made available in the form of separate rich text files for each chapter and each chapter's worth of annotations, a Hypercard stack, or--get this--a Windows 3.1 Help file. Imagine reading a 1.5 megabyte book in Windows Help.

Ten years later, the Hugo/Nebula CD-ROM has vanished into near-total obscurity. Meanwhile, HTML has become the pre-eminent form of hypertext, and the e-book has come into its own as the reading format of choice for many technophiles. In fact, the un-annotated A Fire Upon the Deep was one of the first titles offered by Palm Digital Media, back when it was known as Peanut Press. And now that the technology has evolved, Vernor Vinge has re-released the annotated version of the novel as a Palm Digital Media format e-book.

It would have been nice to have A Fire Upon the Deep in open HTML like Baen's e-books, but it is understandable that Dr. Vinge (or his publisher) might have preferred for the book to be digitally protected. Since that is unlikely to change anytime soon, there is little point to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; as digitally-protected e-book formats go, the PDM format is actually quite decent. Free reader software is available for the Palm, PocketPC, Macintosh, and Windows platforms (and the Windows version also runs flawlessly under WINE on Linux).

A Palm Digital Media e-book is a hypertext document that supports text formatting (as with bold, italics, and differently-sized fonts), low-resolution images, and links from one part of the document to another (most often used for footnotes or annotations). DRM is simple and nonintrusive, consisting of entering name and credit card number into the reader software the first time the book is loaded. Thereafter, the book can be loaded immediately, and always opens to the page on which it was closed. The DRM is not tied to any particular device, so a book can be unlocked on as many different computers or PDAs as its purchaser desires to use simultaneously.

For the most part, A Fire Upon the Deep is easy enough to read in this Palm Reader format. However, there are some small things that take away from the reading experience. The most obvious comes from the way the links to the annotations are provided. In the text, these links are essentially centered between two paragraphs, separated by paragraph breaks, like so:

Note 423

Sometimes there are two or three or more of these links in a row. When reading from a computer screen, this is not too distracting--and it is certainly easier than looking for the link inside a paragraph--but on the much smaller screen of a PDA, it can substantially cut down on the amount of actual story text on the screen at one time (especially at larger font sizes).

The other thing is that flipping back and forth from footnotes to text can be extremely distracting to following the thread of the story, especially when reading from a PDA (and particularly when many of those footnotes turn out to be things like "Checked spelling of 'worldwide'"). After a while, I started reading a whole chapter or two at a time, then flipping to the footnote section and reading its annotations -- flipping back to the text if I was confused about how a note applied. (The bookmarking function of the Palm Reader helped in this, too.) On my computer, I also experimented with opening two different Palm Reader windows, one for the text and one for the annotations, and placing them side by side -- but in order to do this, I had to make and rename another copy of the e-book because one e-book can only be opened in one Palm Reader window at a time. It was a bit awkward ... but then again, so is watching a movie with director commentary on, sometimes.

Aside from the annotations, there are a couple of minor differences between print and e-editions that do not affect the reading experience quite so much. For example, the Palm e-books do not include the map of the Zones of Thought and the Out of Band II's course that is in the tree-book editions, nor do they have the Vinge-drawn sketch of Jefri Olsndot and Flenser that was on the Hugo/Nebula CDROM. While regrettable, this is also understandable; line art does not reproduce well at lower resolutions, and would also make an already large file even larger.

Another departure from the print book has to do with fonts. At several points in the book, USENET-style netnews posts appear. As noted in the annotations, Vinge requested that they be printed in a courier-style monospace font to set them apart from the rest of the story. In the print version, this was done; however, in the e-versions they are simply block indented. Although the Palm Reader does have a monospace font that could have been used here, presumably it would have been hard enough to read on a small PDA screen that the formatter decided to go with indentation instead. While this is also an understandable decision, the slight indentation and the interspersed footnote links sometimes make it hard to tell whether one is still reading netnews post or story text.

Conclusion

A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the best works of net-related science fiction ever written, in either its annotated or unannotated versions. Either edition would be worth buying from Palm Digital Media (or Fictionwise, who also carries it), or from your favorite print bookseller if you don't care about the annotations. (For a number of reasons, I don't expect the annotated version to be published as a tree-book any time soon.)

At PDM, the annotated version costs $8.96, whereas the non-annotated version is $4.49. The question is whether the annotations justify spending an extra $4.47.

In my opinion, for someone who just wants to read an excellent science-fiction story and doesn't care about what went on behind the curtain, the less-expensive version would be sufficient. But for the reader who is interested in the background material, the annotated version is well worth the extra money.


If reading on a palm isn't appealing, you can also purchase the paper version of A Fire Upon the Deep from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Review: A Fire Upon the Deep: Special Edition

Comments Filter:
  • Wow. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Unknown Poltroon (31628) * <unknown_poltroon1sp@myahoo.com> on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:41PM (#7065207)
    That review is almost as long as the book. THis has been on my reading list for a while, and it just moved up to the top.
  • meow? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:47PM (#7065258)
    passed beyond normal mortal intelligence and become as unfathomable to normal humanity as we must be to animals.

    My cat wants to have a chat with you.

  • by RussH (94054) on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:50PM (#7065280) Homepage Journal
    As per the old 'golden age' discussions, it's books (usually on a vast scale) like this that generate the sense of wonder that makes readers read and re-read it, then finally pick up 'the making of' as well!

    Definitely a fantastic read, couldn't agree more.
  • by metroid composite (710698) on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:52PM (#7065297) Homepage Journal
    Whenever I think of the "Vingean Sigularity" and Posthumanism, I can't help but think of Yudkowsky as he has some of the best internet materials on the subject so....

    Yudkowsky's review [yudkowsky.net] (Which incidentally is considerably shorter)

  • Readability? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by WTFmonkey (652603) on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:53PM (#7065302)
    I still have the problem of not wanting to read hundreds of pages of on-screen print. I just bought a 19" viewsonic monitor, but can't imagine reading an entire book on it (or any monitor). I also don't have a palm-type reader either. Are they worth buying yet? Do they read the same as treeware?
    • Re:Readability? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by javatips (66293) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:06PM (#7065407) Homepage
      I own a Palm Tungsten T and I bough many e-books from PDM. While reading on a small screen is not the best thing since slice bread, I still enjoy it. Note that the screen quality of the T|T is very good. I would not even try reading a book on a device with a low quality screen (older Palm or Handspring devices). Color screen or B&W screen should be ok.

      The convenience (I always have my T|T in my pocket, si I can read a book almost anywhere and anytime) of having a book in electronics format far outweight the small inconvenience of reading on a small screen.

      The only things that annoys me about e-books, is that you do not have a great deal of choice. The selection they have on PDM is nice, but is still far from the selection availlable at a small bookstore. The other thing is that your bookshelve don't grow with the number of books you read. I like, when I go to somebody else home, to take a look at their bookshelve to see what they read. You loose that ability when you have an electronic bookshelve.

    • I travel a lot, and for me my Palm is a lifesaver. I have a Tungsten T and have read probably 50-100 or more novels on it. One nice thing is that because it has its own consistent backlight, it is much easier to read on airplanes and at night than a paper book.

      During the day and while killing time, paper would be nicer to read, but being able to immediately start off where you stopped, read a few lines, and never lose your place are not always easy with paperbacks.

      Travelling with a palm and a 9V adapter f
    • Re:Readability? (Score:3, Informative)

      by henben (578800)
      I use an old Handspring Visor Deluxe and a program called Weasel reader (gutenpalm.sourceforge.net). It's not quite as good as paper, but it's a lot easier on the eye than a PC screen. I'd recommend you buy the Palm Zire, except it only has 2MB of memory, which isn't really enough if you want to carry around a decent selection of reading material. Maybe get an old second-hand monochrome Palm from someone who's upgrading?
    • Another vote for the Palm T|T. After much deliberation, I decided to give eBooks a try about half a year ago, and I've been happy with my choice. I am an avid reader, and for someone my age, I have a large library of paper books that I would never part with. While it is impossible to say now, I don't know if I'll ever give up paper books entirely, but you never know.

      As for digital, I have no problems reading them using the Palm. I went ahead and purchased Palm Reader Pro and a set of monospace fonts, this
    • Re:Readability? (Score:3, Informative)

      by btempleton (149110)
      Use the techniques I outline on How to read an electronic book [templetons.com] particularly on a big monitor, to try it out. It's better than you think. Of course PDAs and laptops are better but you can do much with an ordinary PC.
    • Thats what I thought, until I got an LCD screen. The sucker is fantastic on the eyes (and it looks good too :-).

      You can read for hours if you wanted to.

      Gregor
    • I agree - reading on a monitor while sitting at a desk is not the comfiest thing to do. I recently set up an old semi-dead 386 laptop as a dumb terminal (it wasn't easy to find a null-modem cable these days!) connecting with kermit, and can at least read in bed now. It's surprisingly comfy for things like this that I don't need all the graphics and stuff for. Just using 'less' on texts from Project Gutenberg has worked pretty well, and I run it in a screen session so that I don't lose my place and have to s
    • The key to reading for long periods on a monitor is to use large soft anti-aliased fonts (i like 18 point Comic Sans MS actually) on a background other than white. I find pale green to be a very suitable background.

      just my $.02
  • Try fiction wise Plus they have it in more formats: "AVAILABLE ONLY IN SECURE MOBIPOCKET OR SECURE PALM READER OR SECURE ADOBE READER 6.0 FORMATS." I have purchased about a hundred books from them on the sci fi side and have Never had a problem.
  • by the_consumer (547060) <slash@smitty.mai ... m ['ell' in gap]> on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:57PM (#7065331) Homepage
    ...it's common practice to name the author. Somewhere near the top is nice. Yeah, I see that 'Vinge' occurs a few times toward the end, but to anyone who deeosn't know who Vernor Vinge is, this isn't particularly helpful, and it seems a bit disrespectful to the author.
  • Great geek litrature (Score:5, Interesting)

    by warmcat (3545) * on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:57PM (#7065333)
    I reread this last week while I was ill with a cold, I enjoyed it just as much as the first time.

    Vinge is a geek's geek, several times he uses the bandwidth limitation to most excellent and credible use -- and in truth, limitations stemming from not having enough bandwidth will never go away.

    If you have never read his work, or disclaim the possibility of it being worth your attention, I urge you to reconsider, this is literature for the [above] average Slashdot reader.

    There are many similarities between this and 'A Deepness In The Sky', Pham Nuwen is in both, but the similarities go deeper: a suppressing, evil Microsoft-like force closely controlling and monitoring the minds of the people who can throw off its yoke is the theme: makes you wonder about Vinge's childhood and siblings.

    • Vinge is a geek's geek, several times he uses the bandwidth limitation to most excellent and credible use -- and in truth, limitations stemming from not having enough bandwidth will never go away.

      I particularly liked the 'postings' from the race that were mostly speculations about the situation and requests for more information, and concluded with the Known Net version of "please reply by email, because I don't read this newsgroup" -- I couldn't help laughing when I read that the first time...

    • ...Pham Nuwen is in both...

      The thing I didn't get (and it's not like I have tried to study the subject diligently) is, in AFUTD didn't Pham Nuwen's character discover that his memories of being a crewman on those STL trading ships turn out to be implanted somehow?

      And yet in ADITS, that civilization turns out to be real.

      I admit I haven't read AFUTD in about ten years (when it first came out), and ADITS about two or three years ago, but I remember being confused on that point.

      • No, in AFUTD, Ravna believes--and, in a moment of pique, tells Pham she believes, and why it's very likely--that Pham's memories were false...but at a certain point in the book, Pham discovers that they were all true after all.
  • That's still among my favorite books. I doubt I'll ever buy the annotated edition, though. I'd rather buy up copies of his "The Peace War" to lend out to the deserving.
  • by GillBates0 (664202) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:01PM (#7065364) Homepage Journal
    Somewhere should make clear to the undiscerning reader that we can't have gosh-wow 1990 LAN stuff on the Known Net because of bandwidth and transmission delay problems...

    not to mention the flurry of lawsuits brought upon the Straumuli by the RIAA.

  • Deepness in the Sky was a pretty good novel as well.

    Joan D. Vinge, his ex-wife, wrote the Catspaw series, as well as the Snow Queen series. She brushes on fantasy a little in style, but with science fiction underpinnings, and they deal nicely with topics such as racism, questioning the status quo, rising above your station, and the limits on freedom when you're at the very top.

    ...of course, during the time it took me to write this, Stephen King came out with another book... doh! :)

  • by InfoVore (98438) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:07PM (#7065409) Homepage
    One of the things I enjoyed about Vinge's use of the USENET-like posts was how he subtly mixed grains of truth and insight into some of the posts.

    From the readers perspective, it is easy to see which posts were on the right track and which ones were utter nonsense. It offered an interesting perspective on how garbled or wrong information could have unexpected and dangerous consequences (unprovoked attacks on innocents, etc).

    It was particularly facinating to read the posts on the "Hexapodia..." thread go from garbled facts to a dead-on analysis of the situation.

    Great book by one of the modern SF masters.
  • by mental_telepathy (564156) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:07PM (#7065412)
    In electronic format, support The Bean free library [baen.com], which offers many free books in multiple formats.
    Also Webscriptions [webscriptions.net], which is a great way to get books early and cheap.
  • by Sierra Charlie (37047) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:07PM (#7065414)
    It's a good book, as is "A Deepness in the Sky" by the same author set in the same universe.

    I know it's too late but, if you're interested in the book, try to avoid the 'review' above. It lays out FAR too much of the plot and background... a few quick statements above give away concepts that take over half the book to develop in an interesting way.

    No offense intended to the original poster, who is obviously a big fan of the work.
    • I have to agree on this and and follow up with my own, go read the book.

      Infact go read everything by Vinge. He has written, so few books, but all of them are great. He show knowledge and interest in topic of IT and he seems to know what he's talking about (unlike, say Gibson).

      I've reviewed most his books on my site (without spoilers).
  • Another version can be downloaded for PC from here:

    http://mfx.scene.org/

    Together with Deepness in the Sky. ;)
  • Amazingly futuristic (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dillon_rinker (17944) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:10PM (#7065439) Homepage
    This book seemed amazingly futuristic when I first read it. The notion of online communities divided up into interest groups seemed like a really cool idea. Several years later I discovered usenet...
  • by Skyshadow (508) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:12PM (#7065446) Homepage
    Just happened to pick up this book in a Borders one Saturday when my girlfriend was out of town and started reading, intending to cover the first few pages and see if it was worth buying.

    I sat in the cafe for six hours reading and swilling coffee, until they started closing up and I had to buy it and get out.

    Since then, I've read a lot of Vinge (including his Zones-of-Thought followup, Deepness in the Sky), but this is IMO his best work. Good hard scifi, original alien species (both the Riders and the Tines are refreshing in a world of Star-Trek-Weird-Nose aliens), good plot progression... Really, I thought the Usenet portion that the reviewer got so stuck on was the least of the reasons to recommend this book.

    Anyhow, go get it if you haven't already.

  • it is understandable that Dr. Vinge (or his publisher) might have preferred for the book to be digitally protected.

    Yes, it's very understandable, but it isn't going to happen. I wonder whether they're simply satisfied to make it harder for people to get at the cleartext, or whether some snakeoil salesman managed to convince them that they've got magic uncrackable "digital protection". Based on Vinge's net experience I'd guess the former.

    Since that is unlikely to change anytime soon

    Anyone want to put
  • The Setting (Score:3, Informative)

    by headkase (533448) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:20PM (#7065506)
    I read A Fire Upon the Deep about a month ago. The setting was excellent, with AI Gods who are as much above us as we are above cockroaches. Looking for other material with this setting led me to Orion's Arm [orionsarm.com]. Orion's Arm shares the ideas of the Singularity like A Fire Upon the Deep and has a 10000 year time-line with no humanoid aliens and as realistic as possible physics.
  • by devphil (51341) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:21PM (#7065516) Homepage


    A Deepness In the Sky is the prequel to this novel, but was written later. Excellent characters, fascinating plot, really sweet tech. Set only a few thousand years from now.

    The reviewer asked about more Tines stories. There's a short story that occurs after both Deepness and Fire but was written first. Actually, it was the very first Zones of Thought story. It's called Blabber, and you can find it published in various Vinge compilations. "The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge" has it, along with some comments by Vinge on the background.

    I'd actually read the short story before the other two, then over the course of time, read the two novels and re-read the short. Wow. Vinge's stuff is chock full o' rereading goodness, meaning you pick up on a lot more on subsequent reads.

    • There's a short story that occurs after both Deepness and Fire but was written first. Actually, it was the very first Zones of Thought story. It's called Blabber, and you can find it published in various Vinge compilations. "The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge" has it, along with some comments by Vinge on the background.

      Specifically, there are incompatabilities between the short story and Fire, which he says now constrain his efforts to turn the story into a sequel. (Although I think he'd be foolish to
      • I'd actually read the short story before the other two

        There's a misunderstanding here. I meant "I had read them in this order," describing past experiences, not "I would read them in this order," making a recommendation. Shame on me for using the contraction there. :-) Does that clear things up?

        I actually have no recommendation for the order of reading, other than "once done, loop through them again to pick up the stuff you missed."

      • I considered pointing out the inconsistencies in the review (as between my starting & finishing it I got to read "The Blabber") but decided that would be going too far afield.

        I found some of the differences and inconsistencies quite telling, especially after reading the annotated FUtD with its behind-the-scenes look at how everything worked. (For instance, how "The Blabber" conflates Jefri, Pham, and Amdi into a single person.) The Zones as depicted in "The Blabber" are the "first draft" of the idea,
    • There's a short story that occurs after both Deepness and Fire but was written first. Actually, it was the very first Zones of Thought story. It's called "The Blabber," and you can find it published in various Vinge compilations. The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge has it, along with some comments by Vinge on the background.

      A side note: according to this interview [strangehorizons.com] on Strange Horizons [strangehorizons.com], "The Blabber" will form the basis of the next Zones novel. Vinge has another book or two to write first, though.

  • A Deepness In The Sky is something of a prequel to this. I didn't much care for it, as it discarded some of the more exciting concepts of A Fire Upon the Deep. I was always fascinated by The Transcend.

    To the author of this article, Vinge does have short stories which specifically relate to the Tines that are pretty decent. It's not the only time you'll see well-designed groupminds, like in Charles Sheffield's (sp?) The Mind Pool (which has more than one title). Still, the Tines are fun.

    The Peace W

    • I read True Names many years back (in an illustrated trade paperback edition), and it remains one of my favorite novellas. Even though I it's fairly short, is somewhat technically dated by now, and has been upstaged by books like Snow Crash, it's a cool story and has some still relevant (perhaps even moreso then when originally written...) commentary on global network anonymity.

      It's been a few years since I gave this one another read -- I think it's far past time I did so...

      As a side note for people
      • True names is a must read for any IRC junky or bofh since part of the story involves larting someone like an irc scriptkiddie. Google for don.mac and mailman and see what shows up. The book is once again in print so you should pick it up at your local book store.

        I disagree about it being technically dated. The terms are a bit odd, but aren't wrong. The concepts are spot on. In the story the police have reason to suspect people of cybercrimes if they have too much storage space so a guy has a NAS hiding
  • and the annotations are a little sparse/terse. They seemed to me just "notes to self", and many are just a single (short) sentence. If the newest one has the same annotation, I'd pass on it. Just get the book and read it!

    Btw, this is one of my top 5 books of all time.

  • by Xthlc (20317) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:26PM (#7065549)
    There's a piece that centers around them in Vinge's excellent, excellent short story collection [barnesandnoble.com]. Although the surprise around which the plot revolves is kinda ruined if you've already read Fire Upon the Deep.

    The last story in this book ("Fast Times at Fairmont High") is a particularly well-thought-out portrait of what American education might evolve into, given another fifty or so years of the Internet and school privatization.
  • The concept behind these beings [the Tines] is fascinating to me, and I would like to read more stories involving them.

    If so, then try and get a copy of The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (or Threats and Other Promises, which is out of print and incredibly hard to find -- I lost my copy :( ). He wrote a short story that predates (IIRC) Fire Upon the Deep that involves the creatures. It is, as to be expected, somewhat more primative, but still a good short story.

    My favorite Vinge short is Original Sin,
  • by Anonymous Coward
    ...and in the Unthinking Depths, even rational thought itself fades away. As one might imagine, most of the "civilized" races of the galaxy are found in the Beyond, between the Slow Zone and the Transcend.

    All except for the branch of humanity know as "The Floridians"
  • by deego (587575) on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:44PM (#7065769)
    The author, Vernor Vinge, a mathematician, was also the first one to use the word "singularity" in reference to the technological spike---

    Venge-sing [caltech.edu].

    Leading futurists like Ray Kurzweill, who wrote "The Age of spitirual machines", and is now almost out with "The singularity is coming", concur with him.

    BTW, on the same note, Slashdot recently linked to Marshall Brain's articles on "RoboticNation"---Marshall also has a very interesting online novel called Manna [marshallbrain.com]

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Somewhere in A Fire Upon The Deep, Vinge mentions that the computer inside the ship has a clock counting from when humans first landed on the moon" That's 1969, not too far from Jan 1 1970 whence Unix counts (not too far, from the perspective of tens of thousands of years at least in the future, anyway). So, they're still using Unix! Neat!
    • It's been a while, so I can't be specific, but there are definite references to Unix in 'A Deepness in the Sky'.
    • He mentions that the story of the origin of the date says that it's from the time man first walked on the moon, but that if you really spent the time digging deep enough you would find it's a while later... 1970

      Tim
      • When you're looking back from 40,000 years in the future, the few days between man first walking on the moon (December 1969) and the Unix epoch (1/1/1970) fades away into a zillion decimal places. Given that the Julian calendar probably isn't even in use anymore that far away, it seems to me that it's eminently reasonable they tag the zero-time to the nearest historically significant event, and perhaps even that they assume that event, rather than some arbitrary calendar date, was the reason.

        Heck, the per
  • All this time i just thought he was a struggling author, i hang out with him and his family druing the holidays for x-mas and thanksgiving, weird to think he has such a huge fan following. I have talked to him about some of his stuff but, he is a very interesting guy. I will be sure to let him know that slahsdot has a post about his book.
  • by HiKarma (531392) * on Friday September 26, 2003 @02:50PM (#7065834)
    Since I'm the person who made it (well, Vernor did the hard part...)

    a) You can still get the CD today, if you join the EFF with a donation of $200 or more, and make a special request to get the CD instead of a T-shirt or Hat. The CD rom has the materials in open formats, just like we at the EFF push. There's a lot on it in addition to A Fire Upon the Deep, indeed, 2 hugo winning novels (Fire and Doomsday book) and 2 nebuala winning novels (Doomsday Book and Red Mars.) as well as all that winning and nominated short fiction.

    b) The format used isn't strictly Microsoft Help format, but a special book publishing product MS made (probably based on that). And it's not so bad. Read the notes on how to read an ebook on a desktop computer and you will find that it's pretty tolerable. Wide margins, large text, fill the screen and sit 6 feet away so you can change your posture frequently -- those are the key points. I designed it to do this, and the MS reader was chosen because it was about the only tool at the time that could do that. HTML couldn't. I do provide a translator to HTML though.
    • I posted that from a machine logged in with a friend's account. Yes, it's really me who wrote the above
    • Thank you for putting this together!! I ordered one monents after finding out it existed (95, I think), and have enjoyed it a great deal.

      Any chance of another collection coming out like that? It would be a great library addition to have one for each year, and pick up the books of those writers one likes the most.

      Cheers,
      -Metropolitan
  • 2 editions (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Ref: Amazon has 2 editions: paper [amazon.com] and eBook [amazon.com]
  • Or more likely, was it done without bothering to ask him, or maybe even over his opposition?

    I refuse to buy any DRM-impaired e-books, so I hope that an open-format version becomes available sometime.
  • My favorite part about this book is that if you get lazy and read the last page it gives you a false impression of how the book ends. I e-mailed VV about this and he very politely replied.

    Uthinking depths to Trancendence is also one of my favorite models for Galatic geography esp. that it uses the modern ides of the galactic habitable zone.

    This book is on my short list for top 20 sci-fi books. If you like it also check out Iain M. Banks.

    In regard to palm's I have a Clie NS 710 I got on Ubid. It was cheap
    • I don't think the zones of thought are based on any sort of galactic habitable zone theory - I read in an interview somewhere that, although it isn't relevant to the story, Vinge intended the Zones of Thought to have been created by some extremely powerful entity.

      Tim
  • It's a long book but totally engrossing. He puts forth a number of fascinating concepts, any one of which would have made a great plot by itself.

    As far as the PDA readability idea is concerned, I've read a few PDA books (both Palm and IPaq) and it does work. I like it best for reading in the dark (like when the wifey's sleeping) or in the car at night, etc...

    Fire Upon The Deep - Highly recommended reading

    M
    • It's a long book but totally engrossing.

      No offense intended but I'm always amused by comments like this.

      To me, a SHORT book that isn't "engrossing" isn't worth reading (unless there's a test the next day).

      Conversely, I don't care HOW LONG an "engrossing"--or even a sufficiently interesting--book is. The longer it is, the longer it'll last, and the longer I'll have to enjoy it. I always have a sort of "come-down" after finishing a really good read.

      Yet I constantly hear/see people say "I skipped to the end o

  • Correcting a comment by the OP, I'd note that Henry Spencer (formerly utzoo!henry) has good reason to believe that he was the (primary) model for the poster "Sandor at the Zoo." Not that I'm authoritative or anything, but I am inclined to agree, having read Henry's Usenet posts for many years...
    • Henry Spencer == Sandor is pretty well-known, yeah.

      [Classic Henry Spencer moment, talking about A Fire Upon the Deep: "I discovered that my mother's copy has bookmarks in it at all the appearances of Sandor!"]

  • I've got the CD-ROM of whence the reviewer speaks. Included novels are:
    • China Mountain Zhang
    • Red Mars
    • Steel Beach
    • Doomsday Book (Nebula winner)
    • (of course) A Fire Upon the Deep

    Plus it also has all Hugo and Nebula nominated short fiction, samples from the Campbell Award Nominees for best new writer, Hugo nominated fan writing, fanzines, and fan art. And if that wasn't enough, four volumes of the rec.humor.funny joke books.

    I wrote ClariNet to ask them when the '94 version was going to come out, but I d

    • I wrote ClariNet to ask them when the '94 version was going to come out, but I don't recall ever getting an answer. Dang.

      Getting the rights negotiated with all of the many publishers and authors was just too much of a headache for Brad Templeton, IIRC.

      Given that most publishers these days make sure that Hugo-nominated works are available on the web prior to the voting deadline (for obvious reasons), it might be easier to talk them into a repeat of the CD-ROM; by the same token, given that all of the n

  • For years, there has been rumor in r.a.sf.w that (a) the Zones of Thought are artificial, and (b) the authoritative statement of this can be found in Vinges annotations. I've scanned the annotations (tho admittedly not exhaustively) and haven't seen anything to that effect. Anybody else had any luck?
  • I read _Deepness_in_the_Sky_ by Vinge, and it was one of those books that was so DREADFULLY DULL that when I finished it I was mad at Vinge for wasting my time and mad at myself for making he effort to finish it rather than to just set the book down halfway through and write it off as a loss. And I do mean effort, I really had to TRY to keep reading, a page-turner it is not. What a stinker!

    And don't think I'm just some anti-sci-fi troll, I have a first printing paperback of Dune, and a first printing paper
  • Nice review. This book is also one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I just re-read it a few weeks ago, after buying the, umm, fourth copy, I think. (All the others got lent out and never came home.) To the guy that didn't like Deepness in the Sky: IMO, there's no comparison between the two books. Although I liked that book too, A Fire Upon the Deep was far more engrossing. I also recommend Vinge's Across Realtime. Interesting stories spun around a neat technology, starting in the near future.
  • How interesting to see someone plug "A Fire Upon The Deep" as their "favorite book." I've been reading SF since I was eight, and AFUTD has got to be in my top 5.

    Damn that Vernor Vinge! Seems like most of the time I find an author who I'm crazy over, they turn out about one novel every five years!

    Prolific the guy is not, but he seems to make up quality for quantity.

    If only he were more like another fave of mine, Gene Wolfe, who combines quality AND quantity, one of my only favorites to do so.

  • When I originally wrote the review, there was a link to the image of Jefri and Flenser [sandm.co.uk] that was originally on the Hugo/Neb CDROM...but I screwed up the link when I searched and replaced all the underscores to italicize the title. Oops.

The flow chart is a most thoroughly oversold piece of program documentation. -- Frederick Brooks, "The Mythical Man Month"

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