Monday, June 10, 2013

TTYU Retro: Portraying a multiple individual: Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (A Ridiculously Close Look)

Many people have recommended Vernor Vinge's Hugo award-winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep  to me over the last few years. I believe this is in part because my story, "Cold Words," and Vinge's novel both feature wolflike aliens. In fact, I was encouraged not to read Vinge's work while I was still writing my story, so I wouldn't get confused! But at last I got my hands on a copy - and it was so much fun that I had to take a Ridiculously Close Look.

Basically I'll be giving close attention to the text and look at how the author is doing...some of the things that he is doing. In this case, I'm going to be taking a look at Vinge's portrayal of the Tines, a wolflike people for whom the pack is the individual. To explain: only when there are four or more of these psychically linked organisms together do they attain sentient intelligence. What a cool idea! And an interesting challenge to imply from the inside without explaining it. So let's look at what Vinge has got going.

Things start out pretty normally as the characters are introduced (a very good move; it grounds readers and keeps them from being disoriented). So essentially we are introduced to three characters traveling together, one of whom - Peregrine Wickwrackrum - gets the point of view. Here's an example sentence from this section:

He liked traveling with others nowadays. (p.17)

It's solid, and easy to follow. The first hint of the unusual nature of these aliens comes further down the page as Peregrine describes one of his companions. I highlight the relevant phrases in blue:

Tyrathect was a newby, not all together yet; she had no taken name. Tyrathect claimed to be a schoolteacher, but somewhere in her (him? gender preference wasn't entirely clear yet) was a killer. (p.17)

Actually, none of these phrases are entirely inconsistent with the idea of a singular entity, but only if "all together" and "somewhere in her" are considered metaphorically. Since these phrases often are used metaphorically, yet are entirely consistent with the actual unusual reality of the pack entities, they are an excellent first step to lead the reader in that direction. The first unequivocal evidence of the Tines' multiplicity comes here:

Scriber Jacqueramaphan had been all over, mindlessly running around. He'd collect in twos and threes and execute some jape that made even the dour Tyrathect laugh... (p.18)

"Been all over" can still be interpreted metaphorically as applying to a single individual, but "collect in twos and threes" is necessarily multiple. The green-marked "mindlessly running around" is actually literal as well, and indicative of the special nature of these individuals, but unless you're already looking for multiplicity, it might go unnoticed at this point. From here on out we get more and more evidence of multiplicity, including the following:

Wickwrackrum called a pause, and got himself together to adjust the straps on his backpacks... (p.18)

He hunkered down, looking out in all directions. (p.19)

He spread out, all eyes on the slowly moving light. (p.19)

Peregrine pulled himself together and ran west... (p.19)

He walked to the forest edge and peeked out in several places. (p.20)

Most of him was hunkered down in holes and hollows, but he had a couple of members looking toward where the star had fallen. (p.20)

I was telling my kids about this, because I immediately thought it was very cool. Both of them will come up to me and voluntarily quote the phrase that appears most often, "looking out in all directions." So by this point in the story we're pretty clear that each "individual" is actually comprised of more than one creature, but there is actually no mention of how many members until a few paragraphs later.

He could see at least three troopers. They were big guys, six each. (p.21)

The thing I think is most delightful about this is the juxtaposition of the expected description of troopers as "big guys" with the specification that in order to be a big guy, you actually have to be numerous (and not necessarily large on an individual scale). If you think about it, most of what you're reading through these pages is entirely what you'd expect. The protagonist is experiencing things and judging them. The genius to my mind lies in using enough phrases that are consistent with the idea of the multiple members of an individual, and a key few that are unequivocally indicative, to make the whole thing work without being baffling.

You get a really interesting turn-around of this when these aliens first encounter humans, because of course they assume that the humans have this same multiplicity. The section below gives their assessment, which includes a lot of reverse-point-of-view judgment of physiology as well as multiplicity:

...and they got their first view of the visitor from heaven, or part of him anyway. There were four legs per member, but it walked on its rear legs only. What a clown! Yet... it used its front paws for holding things. Not once did he see it use a mouth; he doubted if the flat jaws could get a good hold, anyway. Those forepaws were wonderfully agile. A single member could easily use tools. There were plenty of conversation sounds, even though only three members were visible. (p.28)

The last thing I'd like to look at is the scene where Vinge takes his protagonist and subjects him to an extreme physical and mental test. Peregrine and Scriber decide to cross a field full of wounded members of an attack squad who just assaulted the human visitors. One might easily sense this could be dangerous, but more on a physical level than a mental one. In fact it turns out to be a superb demonstration of the mental qualities of the alien individuals, so I'll take a look at it here.

 A mob of frags and wounded is a terrifying, mind-numbing thing. Singletons, duos, trios, a few quads: they wandered aimlessly, keening without control. In most situations, this many people packed together on just a few acres would have been an instant choir. In fact, he did notice some sexual activity and some organized browsing, but for the most part there was still too much pain for normal reactions. Wickwrackrum wondered briefly if - for all their talk of rationalism - the Flenserists would just leave the wreckage of their troops to reassemble itself. They'd have some strange and crippled repacks if they did. (p.31)

The section above is Peregrine's rational assessment of the situation. "Frags" refers to fragments (the full word is used in an earlier line) of individuals, i.e. single organisms. I love Peregrine's assessment of it as "terrifying" and "mind-numbing." Mostly in this paragraph we stay somewhat distant from the terror and mind-numbing itself, however. You can see that in the mob there are a lot of partial people (in the "singletons, duos, trios") and that because of the post-combat situation, they have no unity (the reference to a "choir" isn't given much clarity here, but mostly seeds the possibility of later revelations). You also get the idea of people, some of whose members have died, trying to "reassemble," and the possibility that this could go wrong, resulting in "strange and crippled repacks." So far, so interesting! Now into the next section:

A few yards into the mob and Peregrine Wickwrackrum could feel consciousness slipping from him. If he concentrated really hard, he could remember who he was and that he must get to the other side of the meadow without attracting attention. (p.31)

This piece is followed by a string of psychic disconnected thoughts from the people around him. So not only are we being told that consciousness is collective and psychic, but now we're seeing it put to the test. The way it's described, though (in blue above), is actually not that far off of the way human experiences at the edge of consciousness are described. It's just that the physical conditions under which the mental test is experienced are entirely different.

...Where am I? ... May I be a part of you... please?
Peregrine whirled at that last question. It was pointed and near. A singleton was sniffing at him. He screeched the fragment off, and ran into an open space. Up ahead, Jacque-what's-his-name was scarcely better off. [...] Peregrine was only four and there were singletons everywhere. [...] Wic and Kwk and Rac and Rum tried to remember just why they was here and where they was going. Concentrate on direct sensation; what is really here: the sooty smell of the flamer's liquid fire... the midges swarming everywhere, clotting the puddles of blood all black. (p.32)

The question "may I be a part of you" makes explicit what has been implied up to this point, that the "singletons" wandering around the field could potentially join up with others in their area. Peregrine's reaction, "he screeched the fragment off" gives us a good picture of how unwelcome that kind of overture is under normal circumstances. Just to make clear that even though we've returned to the descriptive narrative doesn't mean that Peregrine is okay, Vinge gives us "Jacque-what's-his-name" to indicate Peregrine's disorientation. Then we get the part where things get grammatically interesting (mwa-ha-ha). Vinge gives us an important piece of information with "Peregrine was only four," because that is the minimum number for consciousness (this will become clearer below). He then breaks them up, showing us that the names used by these creatures are actually concatenations of the names of their component individuals. I'm going to look at this sentence a little more closely:

Wic and Kwk and Rac and Rum tried to remember just why they was here and where they was going. (p.32)

This sentence gives you a combination of plural indicators and singular indicators. Following a list of four names at the front, you expect the use of "they" to indicate that they are a group. However, Vinge chooses to use the singular verb form "was," so twice you get the combination "they was" which would give traditional grammarians conniptions. Here, though, it's indicating that Peregrine still has a bit of his unity left, and its ungrammatical quality is perfect to give us a gut feel of Peregrine's continued confusion. The narrative continues:

Wic-Kwk-Rac-Rum looked ahead. He was almost out of it: the south edge of the wreckage. He dragged himself to a patch of clean ground. Parts of him vomited, and he collapsed. Sanity slowly returned.Wickwrackrum looked up, saw Jacqueramaphan just inside the mob. Scriber was a big fellow, a sixsome, but he was having at least as bad a time as Peregrine. He staggered from side to side, eyes wide, snapping at himself and others. (p.32)

Here, Vinge is putting our protagonist back together. His members are back to one name, but with hyphens to indicate some continued sense of separateness. Once he reaches the patch of clean ground, he's back to thinking of his members as "parts of him." He's in shape at that point to assess Scriber's condition, and gives us a great image of Scriber's struggles in "snapping at himself and others." I love that because it's very visual, very literal, and at the same time has an echo of very human feeling because one could easily imagine oneself doing the same thing - metaphorically - when under stress!

The last piece I'll look at is when Peregrine Wickrackrum loses one of his members. He's trying to take a uniform from a dead singleton when the remaining parts of the singleton's pack attack and mortally wound Rum. The extended sequences is too long to type in completely, so I'll give you some highlights.

Wickrackrum huddled around the pain in his Rum. (p.33)

This is a great phrasing because of the way it treats Rum like a body part.

Peregrine stifled the screams he felt climbing within him. I'm only four, and one of me is dying! For years he'd been warning himself that four was just too small a number for a pilgrim. Now he'd pay the price, trapped and mindless in a land of tyrants.

Now we can feel the terror that Peregrine feels, and Vinge lays out the problem: Peregrine has so few members that if one dies, his mind will be gone. He and Scriber are in a very dangerous place, and without a conscious mind he won't be able to get out of it.

Rum sighed, and could not see the sky any more. Wickrackrum's mind went, not as it does in the heat of battle when the sound of thought is lost, not as it does in the companionable murmur of sleep. There was suddenly no fourth presence, just the three, trying to make a person. The trio stood and patted nervously at itself. There was danger everywhere, but beyond its understanding. (p.34)

At the point when Rum dies, then, Vinge gives us a great insight. He tells us that Peregrine's "mind went" - making explicit what we were expecting. But then he also gives us two other ways that these people perceive the mind can go - the battle example, and the sleep example. I love that because it puts Peregrine's dissolution in a cultural context of understanding that doesn't come from our natural human metaphors, but explicitly gives us examples of how the Tines conceive of having the mind go. The three remaining members are "trying to make a person." Vinge describes the activities of these members externally, but in addition, he changes the pronoun used from "he" to "it," which is a very effective way of removing the sense of personhood. It's worth remarking, though, that he doesn't change the pronoun here from "he" to "they" as he did earlier when the group was feeling itself pull apart. This is a very effective grammatical way of expressing what the trio has lost. Its personhood is gone, but its integrity remains. At this point the singleton who approached him earlier returns - and this time is not driven off, but the trio tries to integrate him, at first unsuccessfully. Vinge takes us out of this whole sequence of dissolution with a return to his deft metaphorical-yet-literal style with the line:

Peregrine looked around the meadow with new eyes.

You can see why this book left such an impression. It's brilliant stuff.



  1. Excellent. Very nice analysis. And BTW the scene in the mob of frags is one I've never forgotten, as powerful as anything in SF.

    1. Thanks, Dario. I agree; it left an impression on me as well! Thus, the post... :)

  2. I have an enormous respect for what Vinge did in A Fire Upon The Deep, and I think you did an excellent job of breaking some of it down. The Tines are a great example of how an alien viewpoint can be evocative for a human without the narrative even acknowledging that humans exist.

    1. It would take a Ph.D.'s worth of analysis to cover the whole thing, but I figured it would be worth doing a bit from the beginning. The way an alien viewpoint is introduced is so important. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I'll have to look that book up. You've tantalized me, but at the same time, I think I would have probably been lost if I'd tried to read it without this analysis. That concept is brilliant, but confusing.

  4. It isn't really, Jaleh. I have distilled the relevant portions, but in the context of the narrative, the reality kind of creeps up on you. It requires some mental engagement...but isn't impossible.

  5. Thank you for this. What a fantastic analysis!