Review: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernon Vinge

Tor Books
430 pages
Science Fiction / Space / Aliens

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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.

If you’ve listened to any of the last three episodes of the Working for the Mandroid podcast, you’ve probably already heard about how much I did not like this book. Perhaps I wasn’t in the mindset to read a densely written and oddly plotted sci-fi adventure mixed with weird medieval alien worlds. Or maybe there was never a time that I would have enjoyed this entirely too long novel.

A Fire Upon the Deep is two stories in one: that of two children who find themselves captives of an alien race on a distant planet, caught between two warring clans in a medieval style war, and another story of a woman traveling across the universe in an attempt to get the one thing that will destroy a catastrophic being before it devours half the galaxy while facing obstacle after obstacle trying to stop her. Either of these stories could have been interesting on their own, but smooshing them together made the story feel unfocused as it meandered to the point that the big frightening catastrophic being became much of an afterthought halfway through the book.

I was so unengaged with this book that I honestly can’t remember many of the characters’ names, including the main ones. None of them are very dynamic or become much more than one dimensional place holders for more interesting people. By the end, when the big battle occurred, they could have all died in a firy crash and I would have been happy the book was finally over. I never cared about anyone, especially not the dog-like packs of animals that were the main alien race on the medieval style world. They all had very similar voices with the exception of one or two that I had difficulty telling them apart.

Large plot points that attempted to seem significant could have been removed whole sale with little effect on the end results of the story, which is partly because the big bad sentient something or other was sidelined so early on. I kept expecting events that seemed like set up for bigger turns in plot to result in something, only for more nothing to happen.

There is one compelling scene when Relay, a base built through anti-grav material above the atmosphere of a distant planet, starts to disintegrate. I began to have home for this story, but as that action sequence came to a conclusion, more nothing returned. The final battle was mildly interesting, but ended with multiple whimpers. The rest just made me fall asleep. I honestly could barely make it 20 pages in this book at a time before I found myself nodding off, which is not something that usually happens to me.

Other members of my book club found elements of A Fire Upon the Deep to enjoy, but I found this book to be an incredible disappointment and a general waste of time that made me not want to read at all. That’s not even mentioning how confusing the beginning of this book is because Vinge decides to wait several chapters before explaining his complex alien creatures (who all have multiple bodies though he doesn’t explain that up front so I floundered trying to figure out what the heck was going on), only to then go into far too much detail with pages upon pages of information about alien anthropology. This might appeal to someone with far more patience for dry world building and willingness to overlook unnecessary plot lines that might take several books to come to any fruitful conclusion. That, however, is not me, so I’m going to pretend that I’ve never heard of this book and move on.