‘A Fire Upon the Deep’ is a stunning space opera

Vernor Vinge’s 1992 novel A fire in the depths is a treat for fans of adventure that spans the galaxy. Science fiction author Mercurio D. Rivera was particularly impressed by the depiction in the book of the Tines, a race of dog-like aliens.

“What struck me when I read the book 25 years ago were the Tines, the aliens on this world, the pack spirits he creates for these aliens,” Rivera says in episode 530 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It blew me away at the time and it stuck with me all these years. I was looking forward to that when I read it now. It’s just amazing how he pulls it off.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Bar Kirtley agrees A fire in the depths is a great achievement. The book’s central conceit, a universe in which calculations become easier the farther one travels from the galactic core, creates a setting that encompasses nearly every sci-fi concept imaginable. “There are ten books full of ideas,” says Kirtley. “Every few pages there was just a great idea where I was like, ‘Oh yeah,’ and I underlined everything.”

A fire in the depths juggles dozens of characters and storylines without ever getting confusing. Science fiction author Abby Goldsmith appreciated the book’s carefully crafted narrative. “Only in terms of plot, it’s stunning, but also creative,” she says. “The work shows. I really admire the amount of time and effort he put into thinking about it.”

The novel envisions a galaxy in which thousands of alien races can communicate with each other through short paragraphs of text. Science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell notes that the novel deftly captures the various ways in which such a system can be abused. “I read all those cyberpunk books that I thought were preparing me for the internet, but it turns out that the book that most prepared me for the internet as it stands today was A fire in the depths and its ‘net of a million lies’, and its whole ‘groups of people who are trying to commit genocide because of something they read on the net of a million lies,’” he says. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this book really, really, really prepared me for all of this.'”

Listen to the full interview with Mercurio D. Rivera, Abby Goldsmith and Tobias S. Buckell on episode 530 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Tobias S. Buckell continues A fire in the depths:

I had a low-key obsession with this book when I was in high school. … I even paid my sister $20 to count how many pages there were in each chapter, and I made a chart of what point of view was in each chapter and what happened in each chapter. And I drew the plot of the book on 10 pieces of paper that I could unfold and stretch out over an entire floor so that I could visually see the shape of the book, and I used different colored pens for different points of view. The book really had a huge impact on my ability to plot and think about the structure of novels because I really dissected it over and over because I just wanted to know how the heck he did it.

Abby Goldsmith on the Teeth:

They are cute in the first place because they are actually wolf packs. Their minds are linked, so there are four to eight wolf individuals, called “members,” but three of them cannot form a full individual. It must be four or more. … They can’t get close to each other or they start to lose their sense of self, because when they are three or four members next to another, they start to overlap thoughts. And the whole point is that the pack has to stick together to remain a cohesive person – and they see themselves as individual people, as a pack. Each member is not an individual. It doesn’t think for itself. A “person” in this world is someone who basically has four or more bodies.

Mercurio D. Rivera on Institution:

There is an interesting amalgamation of fantasy and science fiction tropes in both storylines. In the Tines World, we deal with these really interesting aliens, but it takes place in this bizarre medieval setting with queens and castles. It’s a typical fantasy setting with sci-fi aliens in it. … We’ve talked about how fantastic the book is, and I agree. I had one caveat — probably my only caveat — and that was that I thought the medieval setting in the Tines World was so, so human. I mean, the alien characters are in libraries, they’re drinking brandy, they’re smoking, they’re sitting around, and I couldn’t help looking at those pictures of dogs playing poker. That was my only caveat, that the world is just so, so, so human.

David Barr Kirtley on world building:

Occasionally the [human characters] say things that reveal what their societies are like. … The example I really wanted to mention there is when they’re in this place called Harmonious Repose, and they’re negotiating with aliens to fix their ship, and the Skroderiders haggling with the aliens, and Ravna has never seen a haggle because she has only been in societies where everyone always has perfect information about what everything is worth, and so there is never any bargaining. “We both know this is worth this, so this is what the price will be.” And I thought that was a very interesting idea.


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