A Fire Upon the Deep

By Vernor Vinge

Going into this book, I had only a vague impression of Vernor Vinge's work. I had a notion of him as a hard science fiction writer, of roughly the same generation as men like Larry Niven, Robert Forward, and Gregory Benford. Thus, I figured A Fire Upon the Deep would be the same sort of book that one of those guys would write--a fairly straightforward plot centered around a strong central scientific or technological concept, written in an engaging style but with more of a focus on ideas and action than compelling characterization. Now, I do enjoy those other writers. Nevertheless, I found it a pleasant surprise that this, my first foray into Vinge's work, turned out to be quite a bit more complex and engaging than I had anticipated.

Most hard science fiction novels are built on a single concept--a giant ring-shaped structure built around a star, for example, or an alien race that lives on the surface of a neutron star--and the bulk of the plot is driven by exploration of the implications of that concept. Fire, on the other hand, incorporates two main SF ideas. One, a universe in which technology becomes limited by proximity to a galactic core--thus, advanced civilizations with faster-than-light travel and interstellar domains can only exist near the edges of the galaxy, and the furthest reaches of space are inhabited by god-like AI entities. The other, a race of wolf-like aliens in which individuals have no true intelligence or consciousness and true sentience only occurs amongst highly bonded packs. Either of these ideas would be interesting enough to merit its own entire book, but by bringing them together in a single story, Vinge makes some neat ideas really spark.

In Fire, a team of researchers inadvertently awaken an ancient and powerful AI that immediately turns on them, destroying the outpost and then spreading outward like a virus to take over entire civilizations. One ship escapes, carrying with it a small piece of the AI that could be the key to defeating it, but it is marooned on a primitive planet within the Slow Zone--a part of the galaxy close enough to the core that faster-than-light travel is impossible. Immediately after landing, the survivors on the ship encounter the planet's inhabitants--a group-minded race called the Tines--and become caught up in the local politics and war. Meanwhile, the malevolent AI continues to spread, and the starfaring races in the outer galaxy scramble to oppose or flee it. The novel bounces back and forth between epic, space-opera interstellar war and medieval intrigue and betrayal, culminating in a breathtaking climax.

Fire combines gripping action, well-realized characters, and tense, complex intrigue in what I think is one of the best examples of its genre. It's also surprisingly funny for hard SF--scenes are intercut with newsgroup-style posts discussing the events of the story, many of which are hilarious to an Internet-savvy reader. It's little wonder that Fire won the Hugo for Vinge--I could scarcely put it down, and even having had weeks to contemplate it I can think of no flaws and still find it a very satisfying story. Indeed, this is the best hard SF I've read in quite some time.

Started: 9/21/2010 | Finished: 9/23/2010

Purchase from Amazon