Vernor Vinge won his third Hugo for best novel with last year’s Rainbows End. His first he received in 1993 for his neo-space opera, A Fire Upon the Deep (It actually tied with Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book). With attention once again on Vinge, we’re reviewing that novel now.
Title: A Fire Upon the Deep
Author: Vernor Vinge
First published: 1992.
Human researchers inadvertently revive the Blight, a powerful Power-like entity that spreads through the cosmos rather like a virus online (prescient, computer-inspired metaphors abound in this book). One ship escapes containing a possible means of defeating the Blight. The vehicle limps onto a medieval planet where the survivors, two children, become pawns in the Byzantine politicking of a Pack species. Two humans (one reconstructed) and two sentient plants head to this world with significant adversaries in pursuit in the hopes of saving the galaxy. The defense, however, raises its own considerable risks.
Vinge imagines multiple alien species which do not much resemble human beings, and develops them plausibly. Most significant to this story are the Tines, a canine-seeming race who exist as Packs and communicate through ultrahigh frequency in a manner which resembles telepathy. The story also includes (among others) sentient plants and post-singularity Powers. The humans in this story have long since spread out from earth, colonized other planets, fallen into a medieval state, and then developed technology and spread again.
In the manner of the best old school space-opera, Vinge throws strangeness upon strangeness, bases it in some kind of science, and makes it work.
Vinge can be brilliant. In places, however, he relies upon some questionable character psychology. The Tines function in a manner quite different from humans and, as I have noted, he develops them in an interesting way. For all their differences, however, the Tine personalities seem a little too human in their outlook. They’re also able to manipulate some otherwise astute and intelligent humans (and aliens) through one of the surviving children a little too easily. This grates in particular because the humans in question have good reasons to be suspicious.
Originality: 5/6. This recalls space opera of SF’s Golden Age, but uses concepts of technology and the universe that eluded the writers of an earlier era. He also creates an original conception of the galaxy, with its different “Zones of Thought.” Underneath these, we have of course a familiar premise: humans meddle in things we do not understand, with disastrous consequences.
Imagery: 5/6 .
Characterization: 5/6. Vinge characterizes species better than he does individuals, but he deserves points for his character concepts.
Emotional Response: 5/6. Vinge serves up Space Opera written with a contemporary SF sensibility, and succeeds. That’s really all you need to know. Some readers will also experience nostalgia. Vinge’s novel not only recalls SF yarns of yore, but the method of interstellar communication clearly takes its cue from Usenet and the early days of the World Wide Web.
Editing: 4/6. Vinge’s writing has continued to improve over the years. In places, his exposition becomes clunky. Generally, however, I find him quite readable.
Overall score: 5/6
In total, A Fire Upon the Deep receives 34/42