A Fire Upon the Deep: Big-canvas space opera with uninspired plot

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge science fiction book reviewsA Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) was the big breakout novel from Vernor Vinge, winner of the 1993 Hugo Award and nominated for the Nebula. It features a unique premise I haven’t encountered before: the universe has been separated into four separate Zones of Thought: the Unthinking Depths, Slow Zone, Beyond, and Transcend. Starting from the galactic core, the Zones demarcate differing levels of technological and biological advancement — but this doesn’t simply mean different stages of development. Instead, more advanced technologies cease to function when taken into slower zones, since the laws of physics themselves are different.

This include faster-than-light travel, so FTL ships that travel into slower zones need to also have ramjet drives to avoid losing power. Artificial intelligence also does not work in slower zones, and in the Unthinking Depths near the galactic core only the most primitive biological life forms can survive. Conversely, in the Beyond thousands of advanced alien species reside, linked together by FTL and something called “The Net,” which must have seemed really cutting-edge back in 1992, but is painfully dated now. Finally, the Transcend is where Beyond species go when they have reached a higher level of existence and become super-beings known as “Powers.”

Humanity first began in the Slow Zone on Earth, but later established some civilizations in the Beyond. They are far from the most important species, as it’s a crowded space. One of their research teams ventures from Straumli Realm into the Transcend, where they discover an ancient archive that could grant untold knowledge and riches, or a hidden evil being of terrible power… stop me if you’ve heard this storyline before! This is the opening of a million SF/horror films and books — I just thought Vinge might be able to come up with something more original. But alas, that’s what we get.

The evil superbeing grows at tremendous pace, and chases down and destroys one of the two fleeing human ships, but somehow the remaining one miraculously escapes with a few plucky young survivors, and possibly the key to destroying the ancient superbeing dubbed the Blight. And then they crash-land on a primitive planet named Tine populated by…. telepathic dog packs! The two young protagonists, Jefri and Johanna Olsndot, are captured by rival factions and must find their way back together amidst a struggle for supremacy, while learning the strange alien ways of their hosts.

I know that even the best novel can sound a bit silly when reduced to a brief synopsis. But that’s a pretty accurate description of the opening. Meanwhile, Vinge does a little better with the next group of characters, as we meet Ravna Bergsndot, the only human worker at a galactic communications network hub named Relay. When Relay intercepts a distress signal from the escaped ship of Jefri and Johanna, this draws the attention of one of the Powers from the Transcend dubbed “Old One.” Ravna tracks the distress signal to Tine, and the “Old One” recreates an ancient human named Phan Nuwen to find a way to defeat the Blight. They commission a merchant vessel manned by a wise-cracking outlaw and his Wookie sidekick… just kidding.

The vessel is piloted by the Skroderiders Blueshell and Greenstalk, two intelligent palm fronds that ride specialized wheelchairs to get around. There are some enjoyable interactions between Ravna, the ancient Pham, and the Skroderiders as they seek knowledge about the Blight, its intent (galactic mayhem and domination, of course), and how to potentially stop it. The Blight quickly grows in power, dragging in other races and annihilating worlds as it speeds toward Relay. But wait, let us recall that Tine is located in the Slow Zone, where advanced technologies don’t function. So despite the rapacious advance of the Blight, it cannot exert its full strength in the lower zones.

Sadly, the book bogs down in the extended middle portion as we follow the lives of Jefri and Johanna. We learn a lot about the Tines, who form telepathic packs with high intelligence, but whose members are fairly helpless when separated from the group. Their rival factions operate in a medieval world contested by the Flenserists, Woodcarvers, and Lord Steel. I found the aliens’ social structure interesting, but the rivalries and dialogue were fairly clunky, and the Tines were mostly stereotypical. This part of the book would have fit nicely with a YA SF tale, but really didn’t mesh well with the hard SF story set in space. Granted, this illustrated the vast gulf between the high and low zones, but it still made for an uneven tone. I found myself struggling to maintain interest in this subplot, but I’m aware that other readers liked the Tines and their unusual telepathic pack minds.

Inevitably the story picks up pace as the separate storylines converge on Tine, and there is a drawn-out medieval battle between the Tine factions, while Ravna and Pham and crew rush to reach Tine and unleash a force to destroy the Blight, which is close on their heels. There is a suitably whiz-bang finale (no Ewoks, thank goodness), and the Deathstar is… nevermind. What is lacking is any explanation of why the the galaxy has been divided into Zones of Thought, though clearly this has been done by some force that exceed even the “Powers” of the Transcend, since they too are bound by its rules. Since this is the first book set in this universe, I can understand not wanting to reveal everything, but at least some tantalizing hints would whet the readers’ appetite for more.

In the end, I thought the potential of Vinge’s world-building was vast, but the execution and writing left a lot to be desired. The plot is over-familiar, and the characters are weak despite the author’s best efforts. The audiobook is narrated by Peter Larkin, who has a very amiable reading tone, but felt relentlessly upbeat and would have benefitted from more emotional variation depending on the story tone. There is a follow-up called A Deepness in the Sky, which won the 2000 Hugo Award, but is actually a prequel according to chronology, so I can’t imagine it can shed much light on the origins or creators of the Zones of Thought. A third book called The Children of the Sky came out in 2011 and continues the story of Ravna on Tine, but the reviews I’ve read are fairly negative, so I am reluctant to try it. I’ll at least give A Deepness in the Sky a try.

Published in 1992. A Fire Upon the Deep is the big, breakout book that fulfills the promise of Vinge’s career to date: a gripping tale of galactic war told on a cosmic scale. Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence. Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, not entirely composed of humans, must rescue the children-and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization. A Fire Upon The Deep is the winner of the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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7 comments

  1. Stuart, I agree that this book is a little slow at times and occasionally dated, but its scope of imagination and the world-building enthralled me. I would personally give it 5 stars. So I guess I’ll have to write up my own review. :)

  2. Oh, come on! How can I not love a book with telepathic dogs and sentient palm fronds? And is Phan Vietnamese? Because that would have been kinda cool.

    Seriously, I can see how this would have been cutting edge in ’92, and seriously dated shortly thereafter. I think I’ll pass; there are plenty of other books I need to be reading right now.

    • The description of the galactic Net is essentially Usenet ala 1992, so it is badly dated with all the bulletin posts, etc. To be fair, it’s almost impossible to predict such things with any accuracy, so all SF prognosticators face the risk of looking totally wrong in just a few years.

  3. It certainly sounds interesting, and I’ve never seen sentient palm fronds tooling around in wheelchairs before, so that’s neat!

    • I did think the aliens were original, both the telepathic dogs and wheelchair-riding palm fronds, but their dialogue was clunky and a bit too cutesy for my taste. I guess I like my space opera darker and more hard-edged. Reading the prequel now, it features arachnid aliens with names like Underhill and Smith, and they have bookshelves, parlors, and even graduate schools, which is very off-putting, but I understand there is a rationale that will be revealed later.

  4. This book left me behind when dogs started piloting sailboats…

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