A Fire Upon the Deep

by Vernor Vinge

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 1992
Printing: February 1993
ISBN: 0-812-51528-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 613

Buy at Powell's Books

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 likeable 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 (other than the wonderful collective aliens).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2003-12-17

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