Author: Vernor Vinge
Series: book one of Zones of Thought
Publication Year: 1992
Status: seller, I think
A Fire Upon the Deep for purchase at The Book Depository
A Fire Upon the Deep for purchase at Kobo
The first three hundred pages of A FIRE UPON THE DEEP are perhaps the best science fiction I’ve ever read.
By "best" I mean, of course, "most interesting to me, personally." While I’ve done my time in the fantasy trenches, science fiction and I are still getting to know one another. We hang out a couple dozen times per year and have had a few scholarly conversations, but I’m sure many folks who believe in the concept of the "true fan" wouldn’t hesitate to sneer at my paltry knowledge base.
Given everything I’ve heard about this particular book, though, I suspect I’m far from the only person who considers it a paragon of the genre. Damn, is it ever fascinating!
If you require something resembling a plot summary: two children, Johanna and Jefri, crash land on a medieval world while fleeing a world-destroying power called the Blight. They're promptly taken into custody by two rival political groups who seek to exploit their knowledge. Ravna, a librarian, gets wind of the crash and launches a rescue mission. She hopes the children's undamaged cargo will be the key to ending the Blight before it consumes everything she loves.
Vinge weaves the sort of intricate, wallowsome tale I eat straight from the jar. I found the prose and the ideas so dense that it took me two or three minutes to read each page, but I couldn’t regard this as anything but time well spent. I did decide to break out my handy-dandy segmented reading method, though. It seemed to me I would enjoy the book more, and get more out of it overall, if I paused to read something else every hundred pages.
Pausing proved a struggle throughout those first three hundred pages, as Vinge presented me with piles of awesome including:
- Aliens who are, in effect, packs of talking dogs whose intelligence depends on group minds comprised of four, five, six, or eight members working in concert. Hello, fascinating race unlike anything I've seen before.
- A mythic Age of Princesses, wherein awesome ladies did awesome things to bring their people out of an artificial medieval period.
- Craploads of stuff about communications technology and how it might apply on an interstellar level.
- Aliens who are sort of like talking trees with memory-enhancing scooters. (A simplification, yes, but this is basically what I saw in my head as I read about the Skroderiders.)
- A daring rescue founded on misinformation.
- More social science than you could shake a stick at, including a keen examination of how a society might progress from medieval to technological within a short period of time due to outside influences, thereby introducing issues of colonialism.
- Sympathetic, flawed characters who prove easy to connect with.
- An ancient and seemingly unstoppable force that looks set to destroy every known civilization if our heroes can't complete their quest.
- A (relatively) smaller conflict that is nonetheless vitally important to those involved in it.
- Really cool stuff about how different parts of space allow for different kinds of space travel. (Earth, if you were wondering, is in the Slow Zone, where FTL isn't possible. Most of the book takes place in the Beyond, where it is.)
- HOLY TENSION, BATMAN!
And that's leaving scads out. I loved it to bits. Vinge gave me so much to mull over that the book occupied my thoughts even when I was reading something else.
The communications technology, in particular, got me thinking about how much the Internet has changed since 1992. The people of Vinge’s far-future, intergalactic civilization love their newsgroups. Many of these newsgroup postings appear in the book so's the reader knows what's going on outside the main characters' sphere of influence.
I initially thought this was a terribly dated conception of the Internet. When I got my first computer, back in 1997, my e-mail program included a section for newsgroup subscriptions. It seemed of little value, so I ignored it. Sixteen years later, we use the Internet in such a variety of different ways that it felt odd to read a far-future story where everyone was mad for newsgroups.
Vinge is a computer scientist, though, so I’m sure he must’ve had some idea of where the Internet was headed. It’s true, too, that almost all the Net-based communication we’re privy to in A FIRE UPON THE DEEP is between worlds that are days, if not months, apart in physical space. Perhaps text-based newsgroups are the most efficient way to transfer information over such vast differences, especially with hefty data fees in place. Economics play a key role in the first half of the book, and it doesn't sound like anyone involved wants to spend extra money on fancy stuff like images when all they really need is text.
Anyways, I spent a lot of time thinking about that sort of thing while I read. Combined with all the social science (which is my favourite kind of science), the awesome characters, and the epic vision underlying the text, I decided there was no way I could keep reading A FIRE UPON THE DEEP in hundred-page increments. I would read the last three hundred pages in one big gulp (or several, consecutive big gulps, in deference to my reading speed with this particular book), and that was an end to it.
Except it wasn’t. Because as soon as I designated A FIRE UPON THE DEEP as my primary, read-all-the-way-through-with-no-breaks book, the air whooshed out of the tires. My interest in the story didn’t dry up, but it definitely moved into the Slow Zone, whereas before it had rested firmly in the High Beyond. I still liked the characters. I still liked the world building (or maybe I should call it universe building?). I just didn’t feel the same connection to anything that happened, and I’m at a loss to explain why.
I suspect it was my problem, not the book's.
Either way, it broke my heart. When I say the first three hundred pages were the best science fiction I’ve ever read, I mean it. We’re talking 5-star territory, folks. Y’all know how rarely I hand out 5-star ratings in the first place, and I've only given two previous SF novels (TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, which one might as easily call an historical novel, and THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE, which was marketed as mainstream) that honour.
Had the less engaging bits occupied the beginning or the middle, I’d probably still have given the book a 4.5. (Really, y’all, it was that awesome.) Since they occurred at the end, though, I’m afraid they’ve coloured my whole reaction to the thing. It’s THE HERO AND THE CROWN all over again, albeit somewhat less extreme.
Still, I plan to read both the prequel and the sequel, and I encourage you to read this one for that perfect beginning. You might find, too, that the ending engages you more than it engaged me.
4 stars - loved it
(It's probably more like 3.75, but y'all know I round up.)
I didn’t visualize many of the characters--this wasn’t that sort of book for me--but Ravna looked exactly like Freema Agyeman in my mind’s eye. (Hence my choice of userpic for those of you reading this right on my blog.)
The Tines all looked like a cross between German Shepherds, the Doberman from Pixar's UP, and an illustration of the Hound of the Baskervilles I saw when I was very small.
Jo Walton for Tor.com
The Literary Omnivore
I must have missed some. If yours was one of them, please let me know.
Back In the Day: