This review is from: A Fire Upon The Deep (Mass Market Paperback)
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.