Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge

About the book

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.

613 pages (paperback)
Published on: February 15, 1993
Published by: Tor


I have wanted to read A Fire Upon the Deep for some time now. It’s been heralded as a SciFi classic and Vernor Vinge is a name I’ve seen passed around with a good deal of respect. However, until Tor sent me The Children of the Sky, I forgot to read A Fire Upon the Deep. Thankfully, that has been remedied.

A Fire Upon the Deep is, perhaps, one of the most inventive science fiction books I have read. In fact, it’s so inventive that my mind boggles as to how Vinge managed to not only create it all, but to keep it as realistic as it ended up being. Vinge keeps his universe detailed without becoming overbearing with it. While it did take some time to fully understand some aspects of the universe (like the different levels, for lack of a better word, of space), this didn’t hamper the overall flow, or understanding of this book.

However, to make this book work, Vinge had to use a few plot devices which don’t really stand up to close examination. For example, the alien world can conveniently support human life, and the Tines who live on this world can mentally and verbally interact with humans. Furthermore, the creatures in the Blight, who are much further advanced than humans do seem incredibly human. Though, generally speaking, this can be overlooked as the book as a whole is so enjoyable that most flaws can easily be forgiven.

The new and unique ideas in A Fire Upon the Deep deserve to be mentioned. While they do occasionally push the plot to the back burner, the unique aspect of Vinge’s universe is worth reading this book for. For example, the Tines are an incredible alien race who can “hear” thoughts and need to work as a pack of multiple members to function on a human level. These wolf-like creatures are quite incredible and stole the limelight whenever they entered the book.

There are multiple characters in A Fire Upon the Deep, some more engaging than others, but they are all interesting to learn more about and follow through the events that take place. However, despite how enjoyable the characters are, some of them fall into depressing stereotypes, like the villain, Lord Steel, who’s “evil” nature seems to be his only defining characteristic, and has a master plan which he spends much of the book doing behind the backs of pretty much everyone. Another stereotypical plotline is the orphaned kids left on an alien world split between two warring rulers. While this didn’t bother me as much as the first that I mentioned, it is worth mentioning. Lord Steel, when stood against the unique ideas and tight writing in the rest of the book, sticks out like a sore thumb.

While it may sound like I only moderately enjoyed this book, the truth is that I absolutely loved it. A Fire Upon the Deep is an incredibly enjoyable read made only better by Vinge’s flowing and descriptive writing which he somehow manages to keep from being overbearing in the face of everything he is creating, defining and exploring with the reader. And the writing is only helped by the plot, which can, at times, be rather uneven, but still, despite the stereotypes it trips on, manages to be one of the most interesting plots in a science fiction book I’ve had the honor to read since I stumbled upon Peter F. Hamilton.

A Fire Upon the Deep is one of those rare books that seems to have as many flaws as it does strengths, but they can all be easily overlooked in the face of the sheer enjoyment a reader can find with Vinge’s writing, world building and plot. A Fire Upon the Deep in unique and refreshing. There isn’t anything quite like it, and for that reason alone it’s well worth checking out.

4/5 stars

** I apologize for any glaring editing/content errors in this review. I am writing this during my daughter's nap and it looks like she's waking up before I get a chance to look through this review too closely. **


  1. Great review! I've never read anything by this author and have been wondering if I should (based on all the fuss that's been made over his new release). I'll have to move his name onto the the "definitely try" list.

  2. Thanks for the review.
    I should add it on my list.