A Study of Firsts: A Fire Upon the Deep

I’m moving into a period in my life where writing fiction becomes secondary again, as it was in college. In fact, one reason is that I’m taking a hefty college course right now, and soon to start another program at the same time. The change won’t choke off my writing altogether: while a fulltime student, I was more efficient in many areas of life, and I prioritized my novels. So let’s hope writing less will mean writing better.

Blogging, like fiction, is an elaborate way of talking to myself. Devoting energy to articulation is devoting energy to thought itself. Don’t misunderstand though: I’m also talking to you, future and current reader, and always happy when you respond. I predict my future self will be happy as well, though I can’t know and will someday die, after which time I’d ask you not to disturb my departed soul.

Every word I make public is backed by a thousand words of ramble. Cue iceberg analogy. You don’t have the time to watch icebergs melt. Life’s busy, the internet is exploding with raw stuff, and I’d rather my drop in the ocean be worth your will and your while. That might disqualify this paragraph. Oops.

Not about favorites

I’ve begun studying some of my favorite novels to improve my own writing and design projects. Here’s a sampling of my thoughts about covers and first pages. I’ll take these one at a time in a series over the coming weeks, at least three books overall. I’ve mentioned these three on the blog before, which tends to happen where favorites are involved.

These, by the way, are not the top three all-time champions. My favorites come in clusters; I don’t know how to string them in a line from best to worst.

Why covers? Why first pages? Because these are often the first encounter. They have to convince you to give up several afternoons, or thirty commutes, or a whole Sunday, whatever your reading habit. But more than your time, a book costs you some other book, any one of a million you could enjoy instead but never will on this finite melting iceberg of life.

Book cover with silver chrome title text A FIRE UPON THE DEEP and illustration of a glittering spaceship (wide wings, long thin tail, like a manta ray).

Shimmering cover

I just picked up a first-edition (mass market paperback) copy of A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. That’s nothing impressive, because it’s only thirty years old, but on the other hand, it means the cover has some glorious 90s/80s flair. Like that slanting orange-gradient FIRE in the title? My favorite detail. So melodramatic. Likewise the contrasts between other words in the title, dropping THE inside the D, cramming other text into scraps of negative space.

Everything is glittering silver and blue chrome. It’s kind of overwrought, a bit kitschy. I’d say a small dose of kitsch is good for everyone. It keeps us from getting too self-important. It reminds us that a lot of current aesthetics (including retro revivals) will be kitsch in a decade or three, sooner even. One simple reason I like it, to be honest, is the contrast with most modern book covers. It’s exciting to me now because it stands apart, though I think the hyper-real maximalism was more typical for its time.

The bright oils, infinitesimal details, tactile quality of the materials, and wide depth of field remind me of painters from the Flemish Renaissance, like Jan van Eyck. I also love the organic, curvy spaceship bristling with antennae. The scale is hard to gauge even beside the strip of sky city, bending the intuitive laws of perspective. Its apparent fluidity seems to defy the realities of any metal-clad vessel we could design today—which is just the point, a fine metaphor for the zones of thought.

The clearest promises in the cover are adventure and high technology. These promises play out in the book, although I know some people have a hard time getting through the early parts. It’s a bit disorienting to start. The aliens and certain concepts are pretty weird, half the main characters are kids even though it’s more for adults, and storylines are spread across the galaxy. So be aware, if you’re enticed, you might need patience. The ride is worth it.

Simmering first pages

The handmade map of the galaxy is enigmatic, a science-fantasy blend. It outlines zones that look like flames, almost eye of Sauron, and marks some points with unexplained technical or alien terms and names. “Harmonious Repose”?

It begins with a prologue, which does some classic prologue things. Set up cosmic stakes with characters who won’t take part in the main story, even though they unleash it. Prologues can be misused—some people hate them on principle—but a good prologue deepens and enhances the story. This one does. It gives key information; the story truly begins here. Think of coming in five minutes late to a movie, then being confused for the rest. You don’t want to miss this prologue.

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

A singleton star, reddish and dim. A ragtag of asteroids, and a single planet, more like a moon. In this era the star hung near the galactic plane, just beyond the Beyond. The structures on the surface were gone from normal view, pulverized into regolith across a span of aeons. The treasure was far underground, beneath a network of passages, in a single room filled with black. Information at the quantum density, undamaged. Maybe five billion years had passed since the archive was lost to the nets.

from the book itself

First line (italics, three in one): Very meta. The author/narrator indulges, and shares, a moment of reflection before taking the plunge. It could be annoying if it weren’t short and offered a strange new thought: the omniscient viewpoint as a concept is slightly personified. I get nothing concrete yet, no image. This line would perhaps not escape revisions today. Veteran and successful writers get more leeway though.

First paragraph (technically second): Space… the final frontier. An ultrawide-angle shot of lonely wilderness. I guess this is something of a cliché, but it marks out tone, scope, and genre in bold strokes while zooming in towards a great slumbering evil. The main accomplishment here is to establish a vast yawn of space and eternity. This will be an epic. It drops from a short, evocative overview of a solar system down to some kind of cave stuffed with information at quantum density. Various obscure but tantalizing phrases like “beyond the Beyond,” occasional smart words like “regolith.” There’s enough context to bridge the gaps in my understanding.

First page: No identifiable characters enter until halfway down. Even then it’s just a group of people, humans naturally, but not from Earth as it appears. Archaeologist programmers, how interesting. I’m not forced to study the details of their process, but I can see they’re clever people doing unusual work. Skim a hoard of information for precious, ancient secrets. Automation that’s more alive than life. The way they downplay danger in their treasure grab is maybe a bit overt. Obviously they’ll get in trouble. The narrator knows it’s a trope and winks at us, so they are consistent. One part of me appreciates these self-aware flourishes, the other part does an eyeroll. I don’t know which of these parts of myself is the reader and which one is the writer, or maybe that’s the wrong distinction to make. Maybe what most drives the tension here is me wondering what exactly the threat will be, something five billion years old and maybe undead, maybe godlike.

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