A Fire Upon the Deep

by Vernor Vinge

Rating: ★★★★

The first quarter of this book is mind-blowingly good. Vinge opens with a combination of "they delved too greedily and too deep" and an evocation of a superintelligence bootstrapping itself merely from its corpse being investigated. Then we slingshot to a world where all of the people are groups of highly coordinated rat-dogs. A bit later we meet some talking plant-life on buggies and an empire of deadly butterflies. The universe is constantly discussing the plot developments, in the tones of newsgroups and mailing lists, where the subscribers might be floating gas clouds or entire civilisations. I love this stuff. Vinge's vision of the galaxy is compelling and fun.

However, the plot that develops within this world is not quite as exciting. The elements taking place outside of the Tines' planet amounted to a sort of fetch quest, with a string of frustrating delays. There was little horror in how the Blight developed, because everything it did was at a remove and over instantaneously. Even its murder of other Powers lacked impact, because we had seen very little evidence of what Powers could do -- it wasn't clear how the Blight was so much deadlier than the Powers or the High Beyond civilisations, because nothing it did was identifiably different from what you might expect them to do, and the advantage of the Skroderiders seemed tenuous and discoverable.

The story as it focused on the children was a little better, if mostly because it gave Vinge room to go into how the Tines' society and culture would differ from and interact with that of the humans -- the social consequences of their not being able to get too close, what radio would mean for them, the different forms of murder, etc. The narrative arc here was less obvious and thus more interesting to follow.

The Zones of Thought themselves I'm not terribly impressed with. As a conceptual backdrop to explain why the superintelligences don't simply run everything, they're suitable enough, and fun to play around with. They appear to work via magic, but that's fine so long as they're not critical to the plot. Which, sadly, they are, being the means behind the 'press here to win' quest item. Leaving aside that, and the needlessly destructive use of it Nuwen made, why is it that advanced civilisations (and trading vessels known to traverse the Beyond) seem to have such a poor grasp of the mechanics of the zones, and how their systems should degrade? Several characters seem to think that only highly intelligent powers could design something suitable for the lower areas, but it seems like simple empiricism should be answer enough for producing ships that don't need to be repatched on the fly each time. I'm left with a lot of questions like this.

I started out thinking of this as hard sci-fi, but by the end I was moved to agree with the blurb. It is space opera, albeit of better breeding than other efforts. It explores some interesting concepts, and has plenty to enjoy, but its action scenes don't lend the plot quite enough tension. The writing is fine enough, but I will note that my edition had a number of typographical errors -- I can't understand why this wasn't better copyedited by the publishers. A strong recommendation for scifi fans, but perhaps not so much for others.