A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

There are so many, many great and splendid things about this book. First, as with all good hard sf, it is a novel of ideas, not merely translating our human experiences into distant settings, but also imagining alternate forms of personhood, whether in the structure of alien races — beyond the tired insectoid/robotic hive minds prevalent in popular sci-fi, tho forms of these are indeed as present in it as are our own familiar human lives — or in the very stratification of the universe into levels of consciousness and technology, and how entities bridge these levels. It sounds crazy and hard to fathom, but Vernor Vinge makes it all not only accessible but plausible.

In addition, his characterizations are excellent (and refreshingly not white-male-centric.) As well as being a novel of Ideas, this book is also a deeply moving study of love in its many forms, of greed and sadism and fear and, most importantly, of the will to self-determination. Towards that last, this book is also a rollicking adventure story with a body count that made me, at one point, scream with frustration at its sheer realism (and send my bff a garbled message heavy on emoji. Think of a sci-fi Game Of Thrones. Yep, like that.)

I shouldn’t, however, say that it was just the deaths that affected me. A Fire Upon The Deep deals with a concept even greater than the loss of life: it spends a great deal of time considering the loss of self. What does it mean to be someone entirely different than you’ve always believed? Is it possible for us to escape our programming, one could even say, our destinies? How much of our personalities are immalleable? It’s a breath-taking exploration of not only the outer reaches of space but also the interior space of the mind and soul.

Unfortunately, the book falls flat where it should crescendo: in the space operatics, ironically and somewhat bafflingly. Certain parts that lesser writers could easily depict as epic or transcendent (oh, I realized that was a bad pun after I wrote it, but really, what other word would suffice?) particularly when it comes to fighting the Blight in the second half of the book, just seem skimmed over, as if Mr Vinge wasn’t comfortable describing such. And I didn’t feel that the ending was… I dunno, I guess the point is that evil is hard to exterminate. But the cost of it seemed far higher than this book was ready to acknowledge as being worth it. I’m hoping that this is addressed in Children Of The Sky, which I’ve added to my rapidly expanding Must Read list.

Anyway, terrific book, and well worthy of the awards it’s received, and another of those books I’m about to go evangelize. Read it and be ready to have your minds blown.

A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge was published January 1 1992 by Tor and is available from all good booksellers, including

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