Kindle-licious Special Review: A Fire Upon the Deep: Special Edition eBook


This review is a little different from most. Here I’ll just be talking about the enhancements to the *echo* Special Edition *echo*, as opposed to the actual book content, but they are fascinating all by themselves, too.

I was checking out today, and I found Patrick Nielsen Hayden mentioning an article about Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End in the New York Times. Vinge’s name had also came up with praise in Jo Walton’s post, A Deepness in the Sky, the Tragical History of Pham Nuwen. Thus reminded, I decided to fulfill my desires for instant gratification and checked out the Kindle Store.

A Deepness in the Sky is actually a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, but I never let that sort of thing bother me. And it shouldn’t bother you, either, since it was published after A Fire Upon the Deep (just as A Fire Upon the Deep was published after a novella for which it was a prequel itself). Both Deepness and Fire are available in the Kindle store, but I noticed a very interesting thing.

There were two versions of A Fire Upon the Deep in the Kindle Store. One was a “Special Edition” from St. Martin’s Press, while the other was a “regular” edition from Tor. And it wasn’t just a “Special Edition” with extra introductions and retrospectives, but a “Special Edition eBook“.

This intrigued me, so I bought them both. I know. I take this upon myself so you don’t have to.

So what makes a Special Edition eBook so special in this case? Especially since you’re paying, as of this writing, $1.60 more.

It turns out that whoever assembled the special edition of A Fire Upon the Deep is an eBook maker after my own heart. I’ve discussed the interesting aspects of putting the Shadow Unit Season One eBook together here and here, as it’s a hyper-linked work.

Turns out that Vernor Vinge did similar things, except with grep, plain text files, and comments embedded within his draft that started with ^ and had special tags. These comments and annotations expanded over time and developed as the work progressed, even ending up as conversations between Vinge and his consultants.

(Which brings up one question in mind: what did he mean by consultants? Editors? His agent? Writing friends who were thick as thieves with him? No idea, but it’s something special to have a recorded, ongoing dialogue as a writer shapes his or her work.)

As a result, when you go about making a special edition of one of Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award winning works, you have a lot of material to work with. Maybe a bit too much. If we were talking about a paper book, there’d be so many footnotes scattered about that either they’d need to stack at the end of chapters or, heavens forbid, the end of the book in one big mess. The alternative is to stack the notes up at the bottom of the text, which is disturbing in its own way, though this method preserves locality of reference to a single page.

And that’s what people usually do in these super-annotated works. I’ve seen a footnote in the Annotated Sherlock Holmes stretch across four pages. In the middle of a story. It’s quite informative and usually illustrated, but assumes you’ve already read the stories in question, so you would not mind being disturbed for a fireside chat about Old White Men Holmes/Moriarty Slash. ((And that’s a post for Holmesian Derivations some day, let me tell you.)) And it’s not just once that you get disturbed, even if you have columns on the left and right to preserve, as much as possible, the flow of the main text. Special annotated editions are not for first-timers.

Ah, but a Special Edition eBook can make use of the hyper-linking idiom. You can jump back and forth between a note and the work, or simply continue reading the work undisturbed if you’re a first-timer. And even a first-timer could even look at the notes without being lifted too much out of place. And being able to jump from note to note easily also solves the otherwise navigation-troubling note-that-refers-to-the-sixth-note-of-chapter-xvii.

Enough of that, though. Time for some real screenshots to illustrate what I mean, under the cut.

Regular Edition

Let’s take a brief look (brief, because there’s not much out of the ordinary there) at the regular edition.

This actually looks smart on the Kindle. There’s either font-embedding going on here, or else “Prologue” across the top is an image with an alternate text that just happens to be “PROLOGUE”. Whatever; it works.

The main body font itself, however, works a little less well, especially if you click for a bigger picture (which is the size of the Kindle screen). The serif used here is a real font, and can be made bigger and smaller and shift and reflow itself, but it’s not the native Kindle font—which is much more readable, thank you very much. (I understand such tricks may be needed on non-e-ink readers, but still.)

And that’s about it for the Regular Edition. It’s up to snuff for a normal eBook, if you overlook the lack of a table of contents—which even the most rudimentary of the free Feedbooks edition public domain has in spades.

Special Edition

Where things start to get interesting. Tally ho.

I swear to you that I don’t covet a table of contents. But it’s really useful for jumping around in the work, and of course useful in special editions to denote the multiple forwards and afterwards and prefaces and such. You can see the interesting material provided at the top.

And it’s a very complete table of contents, with clear divisions between the multiple parts, and not just the chapters. Actually, I am reminded of the table of contents for David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: The War with the Mein, which is this and also decorative, combining the best of what’s here, above and below.

This is just one of the Special Edition’s forwards by Vinge, where he talks about his manuscript preparation and annotation methods, which are actually quite interesting if you’re a writer trying to find something that works for you. Here Vinge talks about the special notation—

—and more about the special notation, and then starts—

—a long list of the acronymns and special notation he used, to assist the reader in understanding the context of his various annotations, and whether they were revisited and reworked. (Vinge was basically doing in the Olden Days what Microsoft Word does, except his method was actually reliable and didn’t crash.)

In your old-fashioned annotated hard copy, you’d have to keep these pages, for this goes on for a little while, either in memory or well bookmarked.

And now here’s the prologue, at last! … Okay, someone doesn’t know how to spell “prologue”. But beyond that!

You’ll note that the fonts are plainer, but the Kindle’s lovingly readable ones ((You need to see the e-ink itself; the screen shots here don’t get across the careful balance of fuzz and clarity that affects the reading experience so.)) Notice that these note indicators are links, and while larger than the sublime 1, are still compact, easy to click on, and can be mentally skipped over better—they’re centered, so they are visually distinct from the text without being a nuisance.

(One of the problems with reflowable text, of course, is that there’s no real concept of a page to stick your footnotes at the bottom of.)

So where does the first note take us?

Isn’t it nice that this is readable rather than in tiny footnote font? Actually, that’s a question, because these are definitely draft notes. What does IMP SEQ mean? Probably “important sequence”, but hey, those are underlined. Are those hyperlinks too?

Why, indeed they are. Let’s see where they take us. First, “IMP”, which seems to mean important.

Interesting. This runs us back to the spot in the Zoology of Annotations where IMP is defined. And we also see what the variant iMP means.

Back versus “Prev Page”

At this point it’s useful to know the difference between the “Back” button and the “Prev Page” button. Think of “Prev Page” and “Next Page” to be like “Page Up” and “Page Down” in your web browser. They keep you looking at the same text, just letting you scroll through it. But suppose you’ve come to a section after clicking a link; how do you get back in a web browser? You don’t use the “Page Up” button; you use the “Back” button.

And in the Kindle, and other e-book readers, that’s the same thing the “Back” button will do. The rule I keep in mind is: “I’ve just clicked on a link and it took me here. That means after I’ve looked at stuff here, I want to click ‘Back’.”

There’s no “Foward” button on the Kindle which is something of a lack, although the “Back” button takes you back to the original location of the link, so you could just click the link again anyways.

I’ve seen most people become afraid of the Back button. Don’t be. It’s your friend, especially when diving into hyperlinked works like this one.

Continuing with more screen shots.

Behind the scenes here, I clicked “Back” to get back to the Note 1 page, then I clicked on the SEQ link to get to the page you see on the left here. And it turns out that SEQ does not mean sequence, but sequel—as in “this might be an opportunity for a sequel.” Who says writers don’t keep such things in mind? I really like this annotation in-line stuff by the way.

If I’m satisfied now, I can click “Back” to get back to Note 1, and then click “Back” again to go back to where I was in the main text.

Or I could just be curious and look at Note 5 a little later. INCON? Inconsistency?


(Click “Back”, “Back”, read more main text, get absorbed, almost forget to hit Save on blog entry, thank goodness WordPress 2.6 auto-saves.)

So yes, you could indeed go spelunking in the text and try to get your mind around how Verner Vinge was putting together A Fire Upon the Deep.

And if you’re a first-timer, you can skip through the Notes easily, and then go back later and spelunk at will.

Or heck with it. Spelunk right now. It’ll probably be somewhat incomprehensible until you read most or all of the main text, but that’s okay. You can always go back to the main text and read it through. Or just embrace the incomprehension until it resolves itself. ((This is why I always read books a second time before I review. I go through one read on pure intuition and the second read on critical thinking. And yes, this means mysteries must have more than just the mystery to make me happy.)) You have your choices, and they’re easy to back out of. No pun intended.

Now… off to enjoy A Fire Upon the Deep.

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One thought on “Kindle-licious Special Review: A Fire Upon the Deep: Special Edition eBook

  1. I am dying to get my hands on this but the ones listed on Amazon aren’t actually available, in addition to being priced at over $5000. How does that even make sense? Do you have any idea how I might find it?

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