05 January 2013

A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
1993 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
613 Pages

A Fire Upon the Deep is an eccentric two-ply many-ply yarn of a space opera.  Jeffry and Johanna Olsndot, they’re kids and stranded alone on a strange planet.  Then Ravna and Pham, they’re trying save the children and basically the rest of the universe too.  A Fire Upon the Deep shifts pretty seamlessly between these two narratives beginning as two seemingly completely separate stories but they shortly become so intertwined as to be one super-mega-crazy-awesome story.  I don’t even want to begin to try to explain the Zones of Thought concept.  You can see there’s a lot going on here…and it’s all good.

Yeah, what they said
It’s really hard to write a review for this book that doesn’t stupidly parrot everything everyone has already said about it.  A Fire Upon the Deep is seriously fantastic.  I’m spoiling my own review here by telling you that it gets a perfect score from me.  I explain myself and sum up one of the most oft repeated sentiments about this book with the first line from Jo Walton’s review on Tor.com: “It’s not that I think A Fire Upon the Deep is perfect, it’s just that it’s got so much in it”.

Likewise, reviews also talk about how complex and exciting A Fire Upon the Deep is.  Again, they aren’t wrong.  A Fire Upon the Deep made me feel like a new SF reader all over again.  One feels like it’s possible to literally climb into this book and though Vinge’s universe is still our home he’s reimagined it in such a way that makes it exciting to live here all over again.  Still, do you need to hear me repeat what others have said better?

Characters… let’s talk about them a bit
People talk about movies being huge.  Physically, they’re the same size as any other movie, but that’s not what they mean.  A Fire Upon the Deep is a huge book, that’s why Walton (and everyone else) says “it’s go so much in it”.  It’s so huge and the action is so absorbing that some really great characters are easily overshadowed in some reviews.  I don’t blame anyone, even after spending some time away from it there is so much that is indelibly etched in my imagination and it’s like trying to blink the sun out of your eyes, it seems you can never really make it go away completely.

I’m actually loath to just sit here and describe this cast, because separated from any context they might sound a little unreal.  A couple of kids get stranded on a strange planet cut off from much of the rest of the universe where almost immediately a bunch of sentient and near-telepathic dogs kill their parents and separate them into rival factions.  Or how about the Skroderiders who, billions of years ago, began the path to sentience as some kind of sponge/anemone and even now can’t remember shit unless they’re literally sitting on top of a computer.  And the Tines…well, the Tines are just awesome, I’m not sure I even want to attempt to make them sound strange – I’ll stick with the near-telepathic dog bit...  But you get the picture, it could all sound a little weird right?  Maybe if you were only half listening and you didn’t like science fiction and you didn’t actually even like to read either…

Come on, A Fire Upon the Deep is flush with characters, each of whom and their individual circumstances could inspire their very own book. 

I hate to return over and over to Walton’s review but hey, she’s a good reviewer and there was something else that made a lot of sense to me.  She said: “This particular kind of fascination is almost unique to science fiction.  There a universe and the way it works is really weird, and he keeps handing out pieces of it and you keep fitting it together.”  She’s right about how compelling this universe is, but she misses a little of what it is that really makes this book so hard not to call perfect.

As cool as pretty much everything about this book is, and as fascinating and compelling the Zones of Thought and the weaving of the two stories might be, anyone who has read these books can tell you the reason they couldn’t stop turning pages and the things they cared about so much were those damn cool ass dogs or poor Ravna and those freaking scared kids.  A Fire Upon the Deep might have some of the coolest Hard-SF elements of any Hugo winner ever, but it’s still the people who leave you breathless.  Ask someone.  They might not realize it right away, but if they think about it, they will know.

The next time you’re talking to someone about A Fire Upon the Deep, remember to tell them about Pham, the god/computer/man, and the slow-to-remember Skroderiders, the sentient seaweeds.  And talk to them about the time you were glued to a SF novel because of a wolf pack.  Because as huge and complex and fascinating and great as A Fire Upon the Deep is, it still doesn’t work without a cast that feels real despite however unlikely they might be.

As I write this review, I’ve read every Hugo winner from the 90’s, with the exception of three, and I’m almost done with a couple of those.  If I were to hastily characterize the decade’s winners, I would call them dichotomous.  A Fire Upon the Deep bridges the ultra-serious, ultra-hard SF of Kim Stanley Robinson and the lighter, goofier, more adventurous SF of Willis or Bujold.  Within 10 pages I was already telling my wife how great it was and my surprise and excitement never went away.  I don’t want to sound dramatic, but this book was so indescribably fantastic that I think I might die!  But really, in a decade with at least three of my favorite Hugo winners, A Fire Upon the Deep holds up really well and promises even more for the prequel.


Universe 5/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 5/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 5/5

Overall 25/25


  1. There are worse things one can do than quote Walton in a review. She's pretty amazing in her assessment of genre literature. Still, you did a fine job on your own. You have me ready to pick up a copy. This is one I've often wondered about, have even had the book in my hands several times in the store, but haven't managed to get around to buying it.

    You should post this review on the SF Experience Review Site.

    1. I hope you do read it and I'd be really interested if you, having been in the genre much longer than I have, get the same new-to-SF excitement reaction I did.

      Thanks for the reminder. I meant to post this there but Forever Peace dragged me away from the computer and I forgot. Doing it now.

  2. I will definitely pick it up. No telling when I'll get to it of course. I'm almost on overload, in a good way, with all the books I want to be reading right now.

  3. I was blown away by this book when I read it a few years ago. I've read the "prequel" A Deepness in the Sky earlier this year in the never-ending-now-far-too-long-a-quest to read all the Hugo winners. It too was a great read albeit a little less impressive than Fire.

    Awesome review!

    1. Thanks! Glad to hear Deepness is good too. It's coming up soon for me. How long has the n-e-n-f-t-l-a-quest taken?

    2. So mysterious. Well at least you only have a handful left right? You could still finish them before I do!

  4. Thanks for the review! The part that I most remember was the 'near-telepathic dogs'. I guess I really like group-mind (and group-mind-like) aliens.

    1. The tines were really great. I've heard there is a short story or maybe a few that revisit them and they've achieved space flight. They were so captivating.

  5. Thanks for this review. A Fire Upon the Deep is on my "Wish List" at Amazon. Which books I actually order depensd a lot on opinions of others. I rarely go wrong that way. This reveiw helps!

  6. Ah, and someone has already suggested that you read Deepness. I'm too late!

    I really liked this one, and I think the Skroderiders were some of my favourite aliens ever. I also thought the Tines were done very well for a group-mind species. Other attempts at that sort of thing have never felt as real or as interesting. I mean, look at how crazy Flenser`s attempts at soul-experimentation were. That`s just awesome.

    A Deepness in the Sky is much darker than this one, but the original Pham Nuwen is one of the main characters, and he sort of lightens it up from time to time. It`s got so much evil and so much awesome that it`s become one of the books I always recommend. It`s a definite must-read if you liked this one.

    1. Great! Another recommendation and the chance to "see" Pham again means I'm putting this one on my list of must reads for this year...once I'm done with the Hugos of course.

      "so much evil and so much awesome..." Ha. Love it. Really looking forward to this.

  7. great review; smart angle. I uses your perfect scores to prioritize my sci-fi reads.

    ~L (omphaloskepsis)

    1. Thanks! From you, that is a great compliment :D

  8. What an amazing review! You certainly make me want to pick this up. Your enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.
    Lynn :D


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