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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.


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 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:
  • 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?
  • by the_consumer (547060) <slash&smitty,mailshell,com> on Friday September 26, 2003 @01:57PM (#7065331) Homepage'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.
  • 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.

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. -- F. Brooks, "The Mythical Man-Month"