Vernor Vinge (USA, 1944)
"True Names" (1981)
"A Fire Upon the Deep" (1992) is an epic adventure that takes place over entire clusters of galaxies. The protagonists are two children, which lends it the flavor of a fairy tale, joined by a damsell in distress who is protected by a valiant knight, but the complexity of the plot feels more like the chronicle of the Roman empire, except that it involves races at very different levels of technological progress, from inscrutable singularities to medieval castles. The variant, compared to old-fashioned fairy tales, is that the hidden protagonist, or at least the deus-ex-machina of the whole story, is the Blight, an ancient vicious super-intelligent force that, unleashed by accident, is somehow programmed to expand forever and that starts killing all the other super-intelligent forces, besides entire million-year-old civilizations, but is ultimately defeated by humble human genius. And this is actually not too dissimilar from many fairy tales about humble humans slaying dragons.
The main plot is both a traditional "alien" one and a philosophical one of survival: the Blight is the alien that suddenly appears (in this case created by human stupidity, a sort of deadly Frankenstein monster) and is also a creature that fights for its own survival. Whether the Blight is evil or good entirely depends on whether one is part of it or not, just like whether a lion is good or bad depends on whether you are a lion or a gazelle. Humans are faced with a deadly threat (an alien, a superintelligent power) that they created. This is an old stereotype, except that here humans are neither the most intelligent nor the most powerful of races. They are just one of many.
There is deception at all levels: the top Woodcarver general, Vendacious, is a spy for their rivals, the Flensers, but also has a spy among the Flensers. The Known Net is flooded by "fake news" about what is happening, some created by the Blight itself and some created by ignorance of the facts.
The novel is not particularly original. After it sets its characters in motion and paints their fantastic worlds, it doesn't quite know how to end the story. It is similar to the French feuilleton and to serial pop literature in general, and to television soap operas, where the goal is to continue the story even when there is no story left.
The primitive beings of this planet, the "tines", are not individuals but packs that share a mind. Each mind is made of a number of members.
Meanwhile, Jefri is prisoner in the castle: he lost consciousness but survived the fire and was found by the long-necked dogs (the "tines") and transported to the castle. They make a mistake and place him in the wrong room, and the narrator tells us that this mistake will change the history of the world. Jefri is locked in the room with a large number of puppies and starts playing with them, hoping that his parents and his sister and his 309 friends are also in the castle.
Before venturing in his military campaign, five years earlier, Flenser had created Lord Steel, the perfect ruler. Now this Lord Steel receives his creator, Tyrathech, but Tyrathech admits that she is not the full Flenser: when the battle was lost, Flenser disassembled into several members, each of which fled independently merging with others. Now only two of Flenser's members are part of Tyrathech, and she doesn't want to be recognized as the real Flenser until the other members arrive so the whole can be recomposed.
Meanwhile, an ominous message from Straumli Realm announces that the archeologists have discovered the famed ancient archive and promises to hook it up to the network; but it also admits that something is gone awry and all communications need to be stopped for a while.
Ravna is the rare human being in the Relay system, where business consists in relaying news across the universe, especially for the super-intelligent Powers. She's a librarian, originally born in Sjandra Kei, 20,000 light years away. Her library is 1,000 light-years from the residence of Grondr Vrinimikalir, the intelligence chief of Relay, who belongs to the Relay's majority race Vrinimi. As a child, she had dreamed of joining Straumli Realm, where humans were trying to transcend their humanity. Grondr tells her that the fall of Straum has become a problem for the Relay. It is not unusual that a race transcends its intelligence and creates a Power, but Straum, toying with a lost archive, has created an evil Power. The problem is that someone is using a lot of the bandwidth of Relay to get information about this Straum blunder, at the expense of other, more loyal, customers. The transcendent Powers don't last long: they rarely communicated for longer than ten years. The Power that is sucking up a lot of bandwidth is eleven years old, which makes is "The Old One". Grondr also tells her that a ship coming from the Powers would like to purchase a living human. Ravna is not interested, but Grondr is not upset: there is another human, a human that they resurrected by patching together his dismembered body. This human, Pham Nuwen, comes from the primitive Slow Zone, the Great Slowness, where races (including humans) can't travel faster than light (The Relay is part of the Beyond, where faster than light travel is possible). He was taken on board the spaceships of Qeng Ho, a civilization stretching for hundreds of light years. The expedition lasted one thousand years before his ship crashed killing everybody on board, including him. Ravna and Pham meet Blueshell and his buddy, who are members of the Skroderider race, a race of galactic traders that rides on wheels. They sell cyber-products that now people don't trust because of the Straum collapse. They are eyewitnesses of what happened on Straumli Realm. They tell Ravna that the Straum were working with archives millions of years old. There are thousands of archives in the Beyond, each containing information that goes back millions of years by thousands of races. The Known Net has existed for billions of years in the Beyond. Some of the archives are "advice" that today's races can follow, and occasionally some of the advice leads to the race's extinction because it was a malicious virus. Straum found this lost archive in the Transcend and trusted it. When they suspected that something was going wrong, it was too late; but some humans managed to sabotage the evil Power (the "Perversion") and fled with a part of it: the Perversion is not whole, and is probably hunting for the missing part. Blueshell wants to convince his customers that the Perversion cannot have contaminated his merchandise precisely because it is not whole. Meanwhile, a competitor of the Relay called Windsong has realized that the Relay is overloaded and cannot provide its customers with the usual service, and is therefore planning to create a competing service.
By now, the reader has been told that the galaxy is made of four concentric "zones of thought": the Transcend, where the super-intelligent Powers reside of which nothing can be known to the other zones; the Beyond, where faster-than-light travel is possible, and where many super-human races live and some humans too (notably Straumli Realm and Sjandra Kei, all descended of an original Norwegian tribe called Nyjora), and where communication takes place thanks to a vast Known Net; the Great Slowness (including the Earth), where intelligence is limited to human-level intelligence and nothing can travel faster than light; and the Unthinking Depths (the galactic core), where intelligence becomes unable to operate intelligently.
Ravna has sex with Pham who is gone when she wakes up. A Skroderider calls her to thank her for mobilizing the organization to search for the human ship that escaped the Perversion. Ravna has done nothing of that sort, but minutes later she realizes what has happened: Grondr tells her that Pham has been placed there by the Old Power, who got immensely interested in humans after the Straumli Realm's disaster. Pham is basically the human manifestation of a Power. The Old Power now knows the story of the survivors and is using all its bandwidth to look for them (to listen to their signal).
While Jefri is in the dungeon with the puppies, prisoner of the monsters who killed her parents, Johanna, nicknamed "Two-legs", is taken by Peregrine/Wickwrackscar and Scriber/Jacqueramaphan to the castle of king Woodcarver, who has become a queen after decaying physically. Peregrine has known the king (now queen) for many years. Woodcarver admits that most people in his castle are his offspring, including his loyal Scrupilo and Vendacious, as was Flenser. They are fascinated by Johanna's dataset, the Pink Oliphaunt, which in reality is a portable computer but simply a picture box to them, a picture box that seems to contain a whole universe. The computer also contains a program to teach language, and Johanna, when she wakes up after the surgery that heals her, realizes that they are learning her language faster than her brother Jefri ever did.
Jefri, instead, languishes in the dungeon of Flenser/ Tyrathech's castle, thrown in a dungeon by mistake by a servant of Lord Steel. Tyrathech knows that, sooner or later, the other fragments of Flenser will return to the castle and she will be destroyed. Tyrathech hates Flenser and would love to destroy his movement, which was founded on deceit. Steel, on the other hand, knows that the spaceship contains powerful weapons: two aliens (Jefri's parents) killed so many of his soldiers. Steel is the only one to know the real extent of the research conducted by Flenser in the laboratories of the castle. Flenser scientifically dissected and combined subjects to engineer loyal followers, like Steel's assistant Shreck. Steel himself is a product of those experiments. Flenser had reached the conclusion that the most intelligent grouping of members was a pack of eight packs, and Steel is continuing the experiment in room number 33. Here he keeps the eight-pack Amdiranifani, derived from the world's most famous mathematician. By accident, this is precisely the room where Jefri has been thrown by mistake. Steel initially punished the servant who threw Jefri with these puppies, but now he sees that the puppies are learning to communicate with Jefri and hopes that they, while communicating with Jefri, they will steal the secrets of the spaceship. Steel has also realized that the children on the spaceship are not dead: they just breath very slowly. He also has spies in Woodcarver's castle and enjoys reports on what Woodcarver is learning from the other alien, Johanna: they are learning very quickly because Johanna's dataset teaches them. Using Amdi as the interpreter, Steel brainwashes Jefri to believe that the Woodcarvers are the killers of his parents and his sister, and that he can take his revenge if he helps Steel master the spaceship's weapons. Amdi tells Steel that Jefri cannot operate the spaceship but can operate a human invention, the radio: Jefri sends out a message asking for help.
Meanwhile, Relay has realized that some civilizations have been wiped out by the evil power, and that the evil power is trying to infiltrate the network disguised as a site called Arbitration Arts. Relay then alerts all the nodes in the network and instructs them to destroy any solar system infected by this bogus site. In order to understand this perversion, Relay asks for any information related to Homo Sapiens.
The Skroderiders, the male Blueshell and the female Greenstalk, are chosen for the rescue mission by Vrinimi Org. The mission is kept secret for fear that the perversion, now called the Blight, will learn of it and therefore learn Jefri's location. The Skroderiders are fully aware of the risk of being destroyed by the Blight, but they also know that they could profit greatly from it. Ravna has become even more essential in Relay now that there is so much interest in Homo Sapiens. She, on the other hand, is emotionally attached to the story of this child Jefri. Pham reappears as the messenger of the Old Power. Old One seems to have lost interest in the story, just when Ravna needs his help to equip the mission with superpowers. The human messenger Pham is arrogant, but Ravna makes him doubt of his own identity: Pham's memory could be all fake, a charade created by Old One when he resurrected the dead Pham. After all, Ravna recognizes old legends in what Pham claims was his life. Meanwhile, Ravna keeps talking with Jefri.
The Skroderiders are almost ready to depart on the spaceship prepared by Vrinimi Org for this expedition when suddenly Old One appears through its avatar and announces that the perversion Blight is more powerful than thought: it is killing the Old One itself and it will soon destroy the Relay. Old One instructs Ravna to jump into the ship and take off immediately, taking with her his last gift: Pham. Old One is convinced that Jefri's spaceship contains the weapon capable of defeating the Blight. Now that the Vrimini Org has been destroyed, the Skroderiders hesitate to continue the mission, but Ravna reminds them that the Blight could as well destroy their own civilization.
Scriber, who spent his life studying and inventing on paper, tries to befriend Johanna, but Johanna is hostile to all of them. Scriber tries to explain to her that they, Woodcarvers, saved her, and the others killed her parents and her brother. Johanna's dataset is helping them advance their technology, and they will soon have gunpowder. Scriber's desire is to wipe out the evil Flenserists from the face of the planet. Peregrine, who is close to Woodcarver, tells Scriber in secret that Woodcarver's security chief Vendacious, second in command, has deployed spies in Steel's castle and Johanna is safe under his protection. Scriber meets Vendacious and volunteers to help protect Johanna. Scriber tells Vendacious that he has made detailed notes of all the people who move around the place. Vendacious asks him if anyone else knows about this. Scriber says no and Vendacious order his assassination: as he is being slaughtered, Scriber realizes that Vendacious is a traitor and Johanna is not safe at all. Vendacious' killers kill all of Scriber/ Jacqueramaphan except one member, Ja. Ja survives with one simple mission: alert Johanna that Vendacious is a traitor and is plotting against her. He reaches Woodcarver's castle but dies before he can communicate.
Therefore: Jefri (convinced that he is helping take revenge on his family's killers) is helping Steel and his primitive Flenserists to acquire human-level technology that Steel plans to use against the Woodcarvers, while Johanna is helping the Woodcarvers with her dataset to develop technology that they want to use against the Flenserists. Furthermore, the Flenserists are learning everything that the Woodcarvers learn from Johanna because they have a spy at the highest level: Vendacious himself. Meanwhile, Ravna is leading the rescue mission to save Jefri and find out what mysterious item in the spaceship can defeat the Blight that has just obliterated the Relay and other civilizations.
Pham is back alive but has an existential crisis, realizing that his memories have been implanted by Old One. In fact, Old One has dumped a whole archive of data into him, a "godshatter". He is de facto Old One's robot headed for the Slowness to fulfill Old One's mission. He now knows that the Blight is something very old, billions of years old. Ravna continues to communicate with Jefri and learns that Jefri's life is threatened by the Woodcarvers (that's what Steel told Jefri). Her mission is to reach him in time to save him from the Woodcarvers.
Steel and Tyrathech discuss the situation. Tyrathech is afraid that Ravna's spaceship can hurt their tribe, but Steel tells her they had no choice: Jefri's spaceship was transmitting its location from the beginning. Steel knows that Ravna wants something else, not just rescuing Jefri.
Johanna regrets that she was mean to Scriber. Now her best friend is Woodcarver herself, who sleeps in her room. Johanna helps the Woodcarvers develop a cannon. Woodcarver collapses and Johanna thinks she's dying but instead Woodcarver is merely pregnant. She has been both mother and father to hundreds of Woodcarvers over the 600 years of her life, but this is the first time that the father is someone else: Peregrine Wickwrackscar, who will add some members to his four (Johanna calls "Scarbutt" one of the four Peregrine members).
Ravna, Pham and the Skroderiders travel twenty thousand light-years until the spaceship needs repairs. Then they land on Harmonious Repose, where Rihndell runs a repair shop. Pham is beginning to sense that Steel may be scheming against them. Pham comes from a similarly primitive world and can sense how someone like Steel would think of a spaceship like theirs. Pham cautions Ravna not to tell Jefri that the ship contains the precious countermeasure to the Blight, because this will encourage Steel to blackmail them. Jefri tells them that he has taught them how to build cannons and radios. Their ship cannot be repaired immediately because a a vicious race of giant butterflies, the Aprahanti, demands urgent service from Rihndell. They belong to the colossal army assembled by Death to Vermin, a mysterious alliance that has formed to block the Blight. Its first step is to warn any civilization with a "human infestation" that it could be next to fall into the hands of Blight. It therefore proceeds to destroy Ravna's very homeland, Sjandra Kei, which is one of the three civilizations inhabited mainly by humans: their last message is that 25 billion people have been killed in seconds. Some are said to have escaped and the Aprahanti are eager to hunt down any survivors. Suddenly Pham is ambushed by Greenstack and other skroderiders who live there. Blueshell himself is shocked by Greenstack's betrayal. Pham survives the ambush and wounds Greenstack, and understands what happened: the skroderider race was created billions of year earlier and has always waited for the return of its creator, and that creator is the Blight, which programmed them to obey it when ordered to. Pham tells Ravna that they need to destroy both Greenstack and Blueshell because the Blight can turn the two against them at any time. Ravna, however, refuses and threatens Pham himself with death if he kills her friends.
Tyrathech is no longer Flenser in waiting because news has arrived the the missing members of Flenser are dead. Now she's just a half Flenser of no power. She hates Flenser's realm and wants to destroy it but plays along Steel's plans. She has guessed that Vendacious must be the spy used by Steel. When Jefri and Amdi finally complete the radio, she volunteers to be the first one to test it. She is ecstatic that her members can spread across a large distance and still think together.
The Woodcarvers army leaves for the military campaign against the Flensers. Johanna taught Woodcarver's chief engineer Scrupilo how to build and use the cannons that will be their main weapon against the Flensers. Vendacious tells his troops that the Flensers know what they are doing, but also that he has his own spies among the Flensers, so he knows what they know. Queen Woodcarver, who gave birth to Pilgrim's puppies, keeps the army together despite the fact that this is a deadly mission and that (for the Woodcarvers) the goal is vague.
Ravna's spaceship has become the most followed topic in the Known Net: millions of races are discussing its situation. Ravna has realized that they are being chased by at least three fleets: the butterflies Aprahanti that serve the alliance Death to Vermin, the Sjandra Kei survivors, and the Blight itself. The Known Net discusses the fact that the Blight keeps expanding and has already killed three Powers. Some speculate that Ravna's spaceship is part of the Blight, but Sandor cleares any doubt: the Blight has been accidentally recreated by the humans of Straumli Realm after all its copies were destroyed billions of years earlier (obviously one copy of the instructions was left in the lost archive that the humans stumbled on), but the Blight needs something in order to avoid being destroyed again as it was in its previous life; at first, the Blight was looking for it all over the place, but now it stopped searching and it is simply chasing that spaceship. Everybody agrees that the spaceship must be on to something that is cosmically important. Ravna also has a more practical problem: she and Pham now know that the Skroderiders were created by the Blight and that, despite being the sweetest and more generous of races, they can be turned into deadly robots at any time by the Blight. Greenstack herself admits that this is what happened to her, and Blueshell has to accept the painful truth. Pham wants to destroy them before they can destroy him and Ravna. Ravna, instead, wants to be loyal to the two beings that have helped her when she needed help. Pham accepts to trust them... for now. So there are now two races: Ravna and Pham are racing to reach Johanna's planet before the Woodcarvers attack, and the Blight and the Alliance ships are racing to catch Ravna in time. Just when Ravna has established communications with the Sjandra Kei survivors and is asking for help, the spaceship is hit by a tsunami-like "surge" as it enters the Slowness and they are cut off from the world. But Ravna and Pham had enough time to understand that Skroderiders on board the Sjandra Kei main spaceship have probably seized control. Ravna has no news from Jefri for 70 hours. Jefri and Amdi are disappointed that communications with Ravna suddenly stopped. They wait inside the spaceship for a sign from Ravna, and Amdi becomes curious about the mold that has been growing on the walls. Jefri remembers that his parents told him not to play with it. Thanks to radio cloaks, Tyrathech can now spread through multiple locations. It splits into one singleton who is scheming with Steel to trap and kill Woodcarver, and also kill Johanna, two members who hang out with Jefri and Amdi, and two members who join the troops led by Steel's loyal general Randolith. Tyrathech thinks the right moment has come and attempts to annihilate the remnant of Flenser that lives in her, but Flenser wins and exterminates Tyrathech.
Vendacious leads Johanna to an ambush in which she is supposed to be killed by Steel's agents but instead Johanna survives. Johanna senses that Vendacious is a traitor and that he had Scriber assassinated. Johanna confronts him and he confesses, and he also tells Johanna that her brother Jefri is alive. Peregrine arrives just in time to save Johanna, but they need Vendacious to lead the troops in the war.
Meanwhile the Known Net discusses the Blight, whose expansion has caused a Great Surge. The Alliance announces that it has given up the chase of the Sjandra Kei's spaceships. In reality, they are afraid of being trapped in the Slowness. The Blight is still spreading in the Top of the Beyond and has killed two more Powers. But the Blight seems to be less powerful in the Bottom of the Beyond, where Ravna is headed. One of the Sjandra Kei commanders, Kjet, has decided to help Ravna, even if it may destroy its spaceship, just because she's a fellow human. The headquarters of Kjet's squad are compromised and their orders cannot be trusted anyway. Kjet's spaceship is attacked by the Blight and Pham, using his supernatural "godshatter" power, orders a strategy of defense; but that turns out to be a stupid decision that costs huge casualties to Kjet's crew. Kjet and the survivors rename themselves Aniara Fleet and the majority would like to settle somewhere where they cannot be found, and forget these cosmic wars. Ravna says goodbye to her fellow countrymen.
Ravna's spaceship finally lands in Flenser's land and communications with Jefri are restored. Jefri alerts Ravna that the Woodcarvers are laying siege on Flenser's land and that Ravna's help is desperately needed. Ravna and Pham have their own problems though: the Blight's fleet will arrive in 48 hours. Tyrathech (who is really Flenser) catches Jefri talking to Ravna and takes over, creating more anxiety in Ravna. Then Tyrathech/Flenser de-facto kidnaps Jefri and Amdi into the escape tunnels built around the spaceship of Jefri's parents. Tyrathech/Flenser tells Jefri and Amdi that Steel is a traitor, that he (not the Woodcarvers) killed his parents, and that Johanna is alive. Steel begs for military help and Pham fires his powerful gun at the Woodcarvers, but then Pham sees a human among the Woodcarvers: Johanna. Tyrathech/Flenser wants to kill Steel, hoping that her helping Jefri will win her clemency with Ravna and Pham. Flenser tells Steel that he is "whole" again, and there is no more Tyrathech, and then proceeds to kill him, or at least most of its members; but Steel's last words are that Tyrathech has taken over Flenser's will and Flenser is now doing precisely what Tyrathech always wanted to do. Meanwhile, Ravna allies with Woodcarver and Peregrine, protectors of Johanna.
Blueshell and Pham have spent all the time distrusting each other. Pham thinks that Blueshell is programmed by the Blight, and Blueshell knows that Pham is programmed by Old One to activate the Countermeasure: each is the program of a power. But both die heroically: Blueshell burns alive to save Jefri and Amdi; Pham merges with the Countermeasure (the mold of the old spaceship's walls) to defeat the Blight. Johanna and Jefri are reunited. Ravna meets Amdi.
Later, Flenser surrenders to Woodcarver and offers peace in return for what is left of Steel. Woodcarver fears that Flenser wants to rebuild Steel (who, after all, was his creation), but Flenser promises not to.
Ravna meditates on what has happened. The Countermeasure generated a Surge that plunge much of the universe into a new Slowness, protecting it from the Blight, but also causing the annihilation of countless civilizations by slowing down their machines. The Blight might have conquered everything outside it, but the new Slowness was safe from it.
"A Deepness in the Sky" (1999) is a prequel to "A Fire Upon the Deep" set 20,000 years earlier and telling the story of Pham Nuwen.
"Fast Times at Fairmont High" (2002)
"The Children of the Sky" (2011) is a sequel to "A Fire Upon the Deep", set ten years later.