A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge tied with Doomsday Book by Connie Willis as the winner of the Hugo Award in 1993. (Coincidentally, The Book Smugglers just reviewed Doomsday Book today if you want to read about the other Hugo winner for the year.) It was also nominated for several other awards such as the Nebula Award, the Campbell Award, and the Locus SF Award. There is a prequel to this science fiction novel called A Deepness in the Sky that also won quite a few awards for speculative fiction books, including the Hugo Award. In October of this year the sequel, Children of the Sky, will be released nearly 20 years after A Fire Upon the Deep first came out. In anticipation of the sequel, A Fire Upon the Deep will be re-released in trade paperback in August, and it is easy to find in mass market paperback now (it is also available as an e-book, but if you glance through review headlines on Amazon it appears that the Kindle edition at least leaves something to be desired).
Even though the description below is quite possibly the longest plot description I have ever written, A Fire Upon the Deep is a complicated book and what’s below only talks about the setup for the main plot and the two different subplots. However, if you’re afraid of spoilers skip past the horizontal line.
The story begins with a discovery that drives the rest of the plot – an ancient archive brimming with secret knowledge. Those who found it moved themselves and their families in order to study it further, with hopes of becoming knowledgeable and rich. In the process, they awaken a sentient being that attempts to keep the humans in the dark about its existence. However, the archivists soon came to suspect they are in danger and prepare to leave under the pretense that it’s just a perfectly normal departure. One ship is destroyed by this new Power they helped create, but another ship containing the children manages to escape.
While most of the kids remain oblivious in a state of coldsleep, Jefri and Johanna Olsndot are awakened by their parents, the ship’s pilots. They are going to try landing on a planet, but they want to be together one last time just in case it doesn’t work. The landing is successful, but the Olsndots are attacked by the local inhabitants, intelligent, doglike creatures each made up of 4 or more single entities sharing a group mind. Jefri and Johanna’s parents are killed in the skirmish, Johanna is injured, and both Jefri and Johanna are taken prisoner by the natives. While this is taking place, two travelers, Peregrine and Scriber, watch the attack from afar and see that Johanna is wounded but still alive. The two rescue the girl, bringing her to the settlement of Woodcarver, who is in opposition to the group who found the humans (the Flenserists).
Jefri remains with the Flenserists where he befriends Amdi, a young alien who is highly intelligent and quickly learns Jefri’s language. The current leader, known to Jefri as Mr. Steel, tells him through Amdi that his sister is dead along with the rest of his family. Furthermore, he manipulates Jefri and Amdi toward his own ends – mainly learning about the human’s technology so he can use it against Woodcarver.
In the meantime, the Blight (the name given to the Power the Olsndot family haplessly brought about) wreaks havoc across the galaxy. Ravna Bergsndot, a young librarian far from home, begins talking to Jefri once they receive a signal from his ship. She, two plant-like aliens, and a long dead human conglomerate resurrected by a Power set out to bring Jefri home – and hope to discover the knowledge necessary to save the galaxy from the spreading Blight.
A Fire Upon the Deep is vast, epic space opera with a wide cast of characters, some intriguing alien cultures, space travel, and an underlying galactic mythology that pulls all the plot pieces together. It’s the type of science fiction that I get a little nervous about reading since I expect it to be dry and dull, but I was actually very surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. Overall, it was a fascinating story that made me want to read both the prequel and the sequel (sometime when I have a lot of spare time, though, because this took a long time to read and digest).
Part of this appeal is the imaginative way Vinge split up the Milky Way Galaxy so that proximity affects what is possible. The galaxy is comprised of 4 different zones: the Transcend, the Beyond, the Slow Zone, and the Unthinking Depths. Each of these areas has a different level of progress from one extreme to the other. The Transcend is where the godlike Powers come from, who can resurrect the dead and are considered pretty close to all-powerful. In the Beyond, faster than light travel and other advanced technology is possible. Technology that works in the Beyond breaks down in the Slow Zone (our part of the galaxy), and even less works in the Unthinking Depths.
While the setting lends a unique look at space, the most compelling part in my opinion were the different alien cultures Vinge created. There were several third person perspectives in this book spread through different places, but there were two main groups that converged toward the end: Johanna, Jefri and the Tines (the dog-like aliens with the group mind); and Ravna, Pham and the Skroderiders (plant-like aliens who rode a machine to aid with their short term memory loss). Of these two, I found the parts on the Tines world consistently more interesting to read about. In these sections, we get the viewpoints of both the aliens and the children stuck on their planet, and I thought Vinge did a fantastic job with the aliens’ perspectives. One of the earliest chapters was told from the point of view of Peregrine, one of the Tines, and it gave the distinct impression that they were not human but without making it immediately clear – since it was his point of view, it just came naturally to him. There were some hints such as his brief question as to if his new traveling companion had decided on a gender yet, and it was slowly revealed that each individual was actually a group mind made up of several parts. The part of the Tines’ world in the book had two warring factions, each trying to outmaneuver the other. These manipulations combined with the look at how the aliens functioned made these parts shine.
While the storyline about Ravna and the others had some great moments, the middle part did drag on sometimes. However, it had a very strong beginning and end. The best look we get at a Power from the Transcend is toward the beginning of their plotline, and the end is rather exciting. Most of the middle is the journey through space, although there are some revelations along the way about the Skroderiders that keep it from getting too dull. The conflict they faced with how much they were in control of themselves and just how much free will they had was very well-handled.
The characterization was about average – it wasn’t really about the characters and they didn’t have a lot of depth, but they also weren’t poorly characterized by any means. At the conclusion, I found I was very affected by some of their plights even if one was somewhat trite and predictable. Having so much emphasis on different species also made them a lot more interesting since they were so unique. Both the Tines and the Skroderiders were some of the best parts of the book. It seemed as though the human characters were made to be very accessible to typical science fiction readers (or maybe that’s just me being super dorky since I had something in common with both of the major adult characters). Pham is not only completely badass, but he’s a badass programmer! (Unfortunately, I don’t have being badass in common with Pham but was referring to the programmer part only.) He also seems like someone who has a rather eventful past, which is one reason I’d like to read A Deepness in the Sky, as the prequel addresses some of this. Ravna is a librarian because she always loved the stories about the Age of Princesses. I also thought there was also a pretty good balance between male and female characters with each close to equally represented, especially when it came to the more important characters.
This is a very complex novel, and it is also extraordinarily verbose. It could have been somewhat shorter, but it’s definitely worth reading through all the descriptions to get to the rest of it.
A Fire Upon the Deep is an impressive novel with a lot of scope and creativity. Although it does tend to ramble on sometimes, it’s well worth the time and effort to read as it has a little bit of everything for the space opera fan – ideas, some interesting if not particularly deep characters, fascinating cultures, and a fantastic imagining of what space could be like.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: It was a gift from my husband, who has been trying to get me to read this or A Deepness in the Sky for a while now (yes, I know, you told me so).