A Fire Upon the Deep

Review: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

I should say up-front that this was my second reading of this book, and sometimes reviews and opinions can be rather different between a first reading and a second reading. Sometimes the likable parts of a book are the discovery of reading it for the first time, although I didn't remember much about this book at all.

On re-reading it, I realized why I didn't remember very much about it. A Fire Upon the Deep just isn't that well-written of a story.

Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad book. In fact, it has some truly brilliant ideas, including the most interesting and well-developed concept of collective minds that I've read in science fiction. The Tines are truly fascinating aliens, and the exploration of their viewpoints and how those viewpoints affect their world are very much worth reading.

The concept of zones of the galaxy and changing possibilities in science and technology between those zones is also an intriguing one, although it gives the galaxy an oddly claustrophobic feeling at times. It's not one of my favorite universe designs, but it is unusual and thought-provoking.

The problem is that Vinge doesn't do a very good job of integrating the ideas into a story.

Part of the problem is that the story quickly sets up a situation where one of the main characters is being deceived and the reader knows it, and then maintains that for most of the book, something that tends to make me angry rather than helping me enjoy the story. Part of the problem is that two of the main characters are children, one of them young, and I don't really like reading about young children. But there are more fundamental problems.

Vinge's characters seem to be drawn in broad strokes and then change hardly at all over the course of the book. They serve primarily as chess pieces to move around the story, and while some of them are intricate and interesting chess pieces, their static character leaves me feeling like something is missing. The story has some nice touches, like the Usenet-style net postings that I really enjoyed and were quite well-done, but there isn't actually that much substance to the story in the end. And the deus ex machina ending, even though it was obvious from the beginning, still managed to be superficial and unsatisfying, not really answering any of the fundamental questions raised by the plot.

This is not a bad book, but given that it routinely makes people's lists of the best-ever science fiction novels, I think it's somewhat overrated. Recommended as an idea exploration novel, but don't expect a particularly deep or engrossing story or characters. I can attest from personal experience that it ends up being fairly forgettable.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Posted: 2003-12-17 00:28 — Why no comments?

I remember quite enjoying A Fire Upon The Deep, but I can't remember much about it now. I'll have to go back and reread it.

Vinge's Marooned In Realtime still counts as one of my all-time favourite novels. I thought he did a great job of taking me right up to the edge of the discontinuity, where technological innovation goes asymptotic.

Posted by Dean Edmonds at 2003-12-19 01:24

Yeeeahd, it's csool

Posted by Numit at 2004-02-21 04:06

Vinge's aliens are out of this world!
His picture of the different zones of technology are awesome.

V.V. contributes with so many new and interesting elements, that one understands why he won the prize he did.

I highly recommend this book for everybody that wants to read a good piece of Sci-Fi.

Posted by Review at 2004-05-02 02:59

Given how much of the book was about Tyrathect, and how much personal change she went through, I feel almost like I read a different book from you.

Posted by Peter da Silva at 2007-11-02 20:13

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