Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Somehow, I ended up with two copies of A Fire Upon the Deep. I entered one of Tor’s many giveaways promoting The Children of the Sky and won; the prize package included the incredibly fancy new trade paperback edition of A Fire Upon the Deep, presumably to get potential readers up to speed. However, I had found a copy of it in a local used bookstore a few weeks prior, after being unable to find A Fire Upon the Deep in either of my library systems. (This appears to have been a fluke; I encountered a copy shelving.) In any case, I’ll probably give away the extra copy, because this is a novel I want you guys to read.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, the galaxy is separated into three distinct zones of thought—the Slowness, where faster-than-light travel is impossible, the Beyond, where it is and humans are just another alien race, and the Transcend, populated by the godlike Powers. When humans awaken a malevolent Power known as the Blight, it sets itself to controlling and destroying everything in reach, including the fugitives from the station who woke it up—except for one ship, which crash lands on a planet in the Slowness, leaving the children onboard at the mercy of the lupine Tines. As the Blight spreads through the Beyond, Ravna Bergsndot, a human librarian working for an communications company, finds herself allied with a power known as the Old One and the mysterious Pham Nuwen. The only thing that can stop the Blight is on the lone ship that escaped it in the first place—which is now stranded on a planet on the brink of war in the Slowness.

When it comes to hard science fiction, I’m not particularly enthused—but nor am I particularly unenthused. I’m just not scientifically minded, and the details can often get away from me. But other than the general approach, A Fire Upon the Deep is just brimming with concepts that I absolutely love: a medieval and matriarchal past, human and canine relationships, people out of time, multiple viewpoints, wholly alien aliens, hive minds, and librarians. Had this been a fantasy novel, I might have snatched it up sight unseen, that’s how much I love all of those. But what sets A Fire Upon the Deep apart is not simply the fact it involves all these things I like, but the fact it uses them to explore human (or, at least, sentient) nature, including loyalty, love, trust, and betrayal, among other things. That’s what the best science fiction does, and it’s no accident A Fire Upon the Deep won a Hugo. (In fact, it shares its Hugo with Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book.) Don’t let a distaste for hard science fiction keep you away from this, is what I’m trying to say here.

The worldbuilding here is flawless, and I mean that sincerely. This is how worldbuilding ought to be done. True, there are details that did escape me, but I think that’s me being unfamiliar with this particular flavor of science fiction rather than Vinge losing me. Vinge’s greatest strength here, besides the sheer amount of thought that’s gone into everything, is that he utterly understands his characters and their viewpoints. The Tines and the Skroderiders, the two alien species we meet, are wildly interesting, but where a lesser author might immediately dive into explaining these creatures, Vinge doesn’t—after all, he’s often writing from their perspective, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense for them to ponder their own anatomy. And this applies across the entire board. This attention to detail makes the truly alien, well, more alien; the Tines compare humans to mantises, the only species on their planet that walks upright, and the way humans violate Tine mores is part of the story as a whole.

A Fire Upon the Deep is not perfect—although there are parts in the middle that are so perfect that I almost missed rehearsal for it. The end can feel anti-climactic, especially after all of the build-up and the epic scope of the conflict; I think this can be attributed to Vinge’s writing style, which, while thoughtful and occasionally heartbreakingly apt, can tend towards the efficient. For someone used to epic battles in fantasy, it was a little disappointing. (Luckily, I was able to pick up The Children of the Sky directly—well, as directly as I can—after. I salute all those who have waited nineteen years for the sequel.) But how can you not be riveted by a book that starts out, “How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails” (15).

I always end up in this position when I’m reviewing particularly dense novels where I realize I haven’t mentioned everything I loved and I’m running out of room to do so. It’s a fantastic position to be in for me, but I feel I’m not serving you, the reader. So just know that there’s more where all of this came from.

Bottom line: A Fire Upon the Deep is not perfect—the ending is anti-climactic and the writing can tend towards the efficient. But the way Vinge uses the beautifully thought out world to explore the human condition in a grand space opera is simply amazing—oh, and the worldbuilding is flawless. You’ve got to read this.

I won this free copy from Tor/Forge’s blog.

  • Vinge, Vernor. A Fire Upon The Deep. 1992. New York: Tor Books, 2011. Print.

One thought on “Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

  1. I’m reading this right now. It’s a fascinating work of fiction, though I’m taken in more and more by the tines and their pack-based “people.” Of the cast, I find Jefri and Amdi the most interesting and Ravna and Pham the most bland. More often than not, the aliens are the best characters.

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