A Fire Upon The Deep (again)

I decided to re-read A Fire Upon The Deep. It looks like I last read it... 15 years ago?! Really?! Well, there you go. It's been one of my favourites, largely because it so effectively steals ideas from computer science to make a science fiction novel that's ostensibly space opera.

It's been really interesting to come back to it. I suppose it's fun to go look at the themes involved:

  • The structure of the galaxy follows the pattern of complexity classes, where different things are possible. The galaxy is arranged like a Venn diagram! A Power offers an "oracle", presumably capable of answering questions not answerable in that region of space, just like the complexity theory equivalent.
  • The whole book is about computer security. The Blight is sentient malware, and decades before the Internet of Things was a thing, one of its first actions is to subvert a tiny sensor to own a ship most destructively. And there's a most excellent back door that I don't want to spoil.
  • The Known Net is Usenet: It's decentralised and anarchic and centred around interest groups and mostly full of rubbish. Not much more to add!
  • The Tines are networked multiprocessors. While the normal scalability limits of a fully connected architecture is around 5 or 6 Tines, there are lines (vector processors) and Flenser experiments with other topologies such as hub-and-spoke and hypercube.

As well as the compsci elements, there's the structure of the story: Pham Nuwem is a Christ figure. A god (well, transcended Power) made flesh, sacrificed to save people from their mistakes. Also resurrected, although in this case at the beginning of the story.

Not everything has stood the test of time for me. Going beyond the fun compsci space opera, I felt the characters were somewhat weak and the battle at the end was pretty muddled. These complaints are still missing the point, though, when the ideas are so fun. I'll probably re-read A Deepness in the Sky in a year or two. :)

Posted 2020-01-03.