The plot reads like standard space opera. A spaceship crashes on a pre-technological planet and the survivors encounter the natives, with their unique culture and physiology. Rescuers are on the way, but must find their way through hostile aliens and a galaxy-wide crisis of staggering import. Somehow, many pages later, it all works out.
The writing is good, the characters likeable and memorable. The action varies, alternating tense confrontations and wrenching surprises with restful, character-developing discussions. The real strengths of this book, however, are the cleverly-conceived big ideas. Three examples:
Big Idea #1 -- Our galaxy is somehow segregated into "zones of thought." In the central "unthinking depths," intelligence and technological complexity is limited by the very fabric of space. In the "Transcend" on the outer edges, whole societies have sublimed beyond our understanding and virtually disappeared. Except for when they revisit lower realms with devastating results. Imagine how space travel, technology and our humanity itself would subtly change as we traveled between these zones.
Big Idea #2 -- An alien that has one consciousness distributed across half a dozen or so physical bodies--a pack of wolves with one shared mind. The pack members communicate with short-range sonar. Imagine the confusion when two packs mingle together. Imagine the personality changes when a single member dies or two packs shuffle members. Imagine an entire culture of these aliens encountering human beings.
Big Idea #3 -- A galaxy-wide internet where an almost-unimaginable variety of alien cultures talk to and about each other. What information would be shared and how might it be misunderstood? Who can be believed? Trusted? And we thought we had scalability problems!
And there are more fascinating ideas, large and small. This entertaining and mind-expanding book is strongly recommended. Without reservation. Savor it and swallow it. Then move on to the prequel, A Deepness in the Sky.
on January 7, 2002
I read this shortly after "A Deepness In The Sky", its 'prequel'. (A note: except for the character of Pham Nuwen there is no connection between the two books; this is neither a praise, nor a critique; simply an information which might be useful if you are looking for any connection between the two.)
The style is very similar: two different and initially completely distinct threads of action, one involving humans and one aliens, come together slowly to a common conclusion.
One thread involves two humans (well, one not-so-human: an 'evolved' Pham Nuwen from Deepness) and a pair of aliens on a desperate quest: an all-powerful evil force is rapidly taking over parts of the galaxy and the only possible solution is aboard a ship crashed on a medieval world at the other end of the known space.
The other thread takes place on the medieval world and involves two children survivors of the crashed ship and the local intelligent race, dog-like creatures who are only able to achieve consciousness in packs.
I found the ideas in this book to be wonderful.
The description of the pack intelligence of the dog race was completely new to me; perhaps it has been used before, but not to my knowledge (there is a short note somewhere on the first pages about a short story by somebody else who used the same idea). The possibilities deriving from this kind of civilizations are many, and the author explores them to the reader's complete satisfaction: partial awareness of one's self, what happens when only part of an individual survives, the nature of the soul, how the memories and personality of each individual play a distinct role. Also, the author explores the frigthful liberty this unique situation gives for the ones who want to create super beings, or packs with special characteristics.
Another idea I enjoyed was the 'Zones of Thought': the galaxy is divided into several concentric regions in which different rules of physics apply. Coming from the center of the galaxy ('The Unthinking Depths') and going outwards to the 'Transcend', FTL travel becomes possible. What functions in one zone doesn't in another. This separation ensures the protection of the under-evolved races, making it possible for them to build their own civilizations and expand outward at their own pace.
The minus of this book comes from the fact that this division is never explained in scientific terms; you just have to accept it as it is. Perhaps the author himself could not think of an explanation :).
Many reviewers have complained about the description of the Net, the communication network which unites all the worlds in the more evolved regions of the galaxy, saying that it was simplistic (being only text-based). Don't forget that this book was written in 1992, when the Internet wasn't what it is now. And the issue is not so important at all to the plot, it is just collateral.
The characters were nicely built; I have to admit that I cared more for the Tines (packs) than for the humans, though (the same as I cared more for the Spiders in A Deepness In The Sky).
The ending was very good and not rushed, even if a little 'forky'. True, no grand epic descriptions there, but in my opinion they were not necessary at that point.
What I would like now is a book that takes place before this one but after Deepness, finishing the quest suggested at the end of Deepnees and perhaps dwelling on the evolution of the human race towards the setting in Fire: how they reacted in discovering the Zone Thoughts and so on.
on October 9, 2000
This was a great science fiction novel. It is a story about a "virus" that infects the galaxy and the quest to retrieve the "antidote". But there is so much more to this epic. There is a deep space setting, and a setting on a primitive world inhabited by packs of sentient, dog like creatures. Vinge expertly plots the story and brings the two worlds together in grand style. It is a long book, but it is well paced and suspenseful most of the way. The characters, both human and alien, are convincing. An amazing trip through the deepest reaches of the galaxy, I consider this one of the top sci-fi novels of the past decade. Like all great science fiction, it stretches your imagination to the limit.
on November 24, 2003
The overly enthusiastic hype for this book almost spoiled my enjoyment of it. It is not great, but great science fiction (i.e.- Hyperion by Dan Simmons) is very hard to come by these days. A Fire Upon the Deep is good, with enough thought provoking, creative aliens, new concepts in astrophysics and stimulating plot twists and dialogue to carry you into a few late night reading sessions. Several glaring inconsistencies in the behavior of the main characters mar, but do not destroy the credibility of the plot. Some fundamental questions remain painfully unanswered. But, overall a fine read. Space opera lives.
on July 30, 2003
Vernor Vinge created a fascinating universe, then filled it with a top-notch story. This novel was a Hugo Award winner, and it's hard to disagree with the selection committee's choice. The primary leap of faith is the way Vinge sets up his galaxy - he stratifies it (based on density?) into 3 zones: The Slowness, where the speed of light is the fastest possible speed (and where the Earth currently resides); the Beyond, where lightspeed and near-instantaneous communication is possible; and the Transcend, where instantaneous communication (among other things) is possible.
In the Transcend live the Powers, transendental beings of great power, that are severely limited in other zones because of the time-lag in communication, etc. Many corporeal beings from the lower levels try to acheive transcendance, and therefore tinker in that level. Our story starts with a human colony trying to achieve transcendance, but they unwittingly release a Power of great malevolence and extreme strength. This Power destroys the colony and goes on a rampage through the rest of the galaxy, bent on universal dominance.
However.... Two children and their parents have escaped the holocaust with a vital piece of information - a Countermeasure that could damage/destroy the Power. The Power knows it's missing, but not where. When these refugees crash on a pre-industrial world, the race is on between the Power and a small group that have the key to using the Countermeasure.
The story is more complex than a simple outline can describe, and includes a number of extraterrestrial races, planets, and subplots. They are held together by a galaxy-straddling faster-than-light newsnet, much like the newsgroups of current internet technology. Vinge's greatest inventions, though, are the two extraterrestrial races that are featured in the story, the Tines and the Skroderiders. The Tines are a fascinating invention, pack-animals (similar to dogs) that need to live in groups to support their intelligence (single members are only semi-sentient). Vinge fully develops the society of these creatures in a convincing and fascinating way. Likewise, the Skroderiders are sentient plants with high intelligence but low short-term memory capacity, and are an interesting twist on standard alien societies.
Most of the book is built around tension - there is very little action. This is good, because Vinge seems out of his element when writing about battles. The book's climactic battle is a little contrived relative to the freshness of the rest of the story. This is a very minor quibble. A Fire Upon the Deep is a vast undertaking, but so well written that you immediately fit into the universe and get pulled into the story.
on July 16, 2003
Vinge is probably best-known today for his early exploration into the idea of a technological "singularity". (Type "vinge singularity" into Google to find his 1993 essay.) He thinks this singularity will occur by the year 2030 here on earth, the result being that our society will transform into something we can't in principle predict today.
With this kind of ammunition, Vinge ought to be able to turn out stories with immediate relevance to our society, in the manner of Michael Crichton or Arthur C. Clarke. Unfortunately, in all of his fictional works he combines his very relevant ideas with too many fantastical elements (e.g., "zones of thought", "bobbles") to stir any real debate. So my criticism is that he's not exercising his potential as a writer.
That aside, I was fairly entertained by the plot and some of the ideas. Especially the Tines, a dog-like race with collective intelligence. In general the book has a very "space opera" feel to it, harkening back to the golden age of SF when the focus was on cruising across the galaxy at warp speed, exploring new worlds and new civilizations. Again it's fun, but I can't shake the feeling it's cotton candy compared to what Vinge is capable of writing.
on June 16, 2003
The first 6 chapters were confusing to me. The author jumps into the story without setup, and you are left wandering what the heck he's talking about. Then it blossoms into a beautiful story full of depth and character. Sweeping, grand, and brilliant. I can not say enough how much I enjoyed this novel. My only quibble is the ending; not that it was bad, but I had hoped from something more tension packed. As it stands, it was a good ending but not great.
When I bought the novel I had some worry that the story would be about the "kids" saving the day, like some TV tripe. I was glad to learn that the kids are treated as kids with real frailties and nature. If you read the description of this book and think that this will be some "superkids" book you would be wrong. They play a major part of the story but they are believable and endearing.
Having said that, I whole-heartedly recommend this novel. It was VERY deserving of the Hugo award. You will not be disappointed.
on March 19, 2003
I felt I should clear up a couple of misconceptions people seem to have, that I believe are true, regardless of whether one thinks the book is good or not. I have to say that I stopped reading it after roughly 200 pages, not because it was particularly a bad story or poorly written, but because I just did not care what happened next to any of the characters.
Misconception #1: The book is "hard science." One of the central ideas of the book, the "Zones of Thought", violates the laws of physics as we understand them today. While you can argue this is an interesting concept, it cannot be labeled "hard science".
Misconception #2: The book is exciting. Granted, this may be regarded as subjective, but the fact the characters are not developed all that well (something that even those who like the book concede, which means that we do not sympathise with them or care what happens to them) and that the main protaginist is regarded by all as a temporary evil that will seemingly go away of its own accord with time (and we are presented with no evidence to contradict this) make a strong argument that this book is not a "page-turner."
I would recommend Dan Simmons' "Hyperion" series to those who are looking for very good "recent" science fiction.
on February 19, 2003
An absolutely amazing book. It took me a while to absorb enough of the context of this universe to realize what was happening, but then it all came together in this flash of "WOW!"
I was particularly fascinated by his galactic cosmology, where the highest technology is only available in areas of low density (and hence the lowest resources), where there are caches of tremendous and sometimes dangerous knowledge. Journeying into the bulk of the galaxy, "deep-mining" for resources, is extremely dangerous, because high-tech solutions for FTL, or even _safe_ space travel, just aren't available.
Intriguing story, where actions of a small child and some fugitives pursued by a hostile fleet have impact on galactic stages they cannot even comprehend.
Vinge has put together a fascinating set of rules, and a plot high in creativity and complexity. His ability to even tell a story of such complexity while keeping it comprehensible is impressive. While I never grew attached to the 'Tines, and thought the naming was unfortunate, and would have liked to see a more solid link to, say, Earth (Earth is apparently in the "Deeps," the dead zone making up the bulk of the galaxy where FTL travel is impossible), there is tension, action and surprise revelation enough to satisfy any adventure-hound. And enough food for thought to occupy you long after the books is finished.
on November 30, 2002
Many years ago I gave up reading sci-fi because it's, well, goofy and embarassing. It's like poetry written by nobel prize winners - because the author is smart, he or she thinks they can write. But it takes more than brains. Good sci-fi is hard to find because it is a genre with no imposed limits. Authors write whatever they want, they have no editors, and other sci-fi geeks hand out the awards and the praise. That's why you end up with so many novels about "dark riders in a cloak of fog", or humans fleeing some remote planet to arrive on a "blue pearl" that turns out to be Earth (or in the popular, irritating sci-fi parlance, "Terra"). It is a niche market, which insulates it from the forces of the normal marketplace - the forces that ensure mainstream fiction is readable.
This book is dreadful from the opening chapter, an artsy "prologue" which is written in some computer stream-of-consciousness that is more irritating to read than it sounds. We then move on to a family landing on a planet, and being attacked by some race of wolves who carry flamethrowers and bow and arrow sets. Sound ridiculous enough yet? If not, ask yourself how wolves with no thumbs string a bow and arrow, or construct the intricate inner workings of a flamethrower. Not to mention the stupidity of using a flamethrower on a spaceship. The thing survives re-entry heat! No portable incendiary device would set it on fire. And can anyone explain to me how any species would develop flamethrower technology BEFORE developing true projectile weaponry? It's poorly thought out and embarassing.
Most painful is the fact that this story would have worked 100% better if the author had stayed with human-like characters. Instead we have to muddle through pages of faux wolf thought and wolf-speak, horrible made-up "names" for the wolf creatures that read like junior jumble creations, and endure a ridiculous battle scene where wolves defeat a human who has a laser gun.
It's a drag to get through, and I can't imagine the type of person who enjoys this obtuse style of writing. I picked this book up after finishing a Philip K. Dick novel, which by contrast was well-written, fast-moving, and exciting. If you're a fringe sci-fi fan like me who can't stand the self-aggrandizing nonsense, I suggest you avoid Vinge and investigate the likes of Dick or Alfred Bester.