Vernor Vinge

 

A Fire Upon the Deep

 

A very impressive opening. Vinge cleverly introduces his canine aliens (‘Tines’) with their group or pack identity, first narrating from one of their own’s point of view before revealing how different they are. The scale is massive – galactic – and there is some interesting interplay between the relatively infinitesimal struggles of a few individuals on a technologically medieval planet, and a pan-galactic (yes, you can’t think that word without adding a tacit ‘gargle-blaster’) ‘blight’ that casually wipes out/en-zombifies a billion planets. Ironically (and disturbingly authentically) the close proximity and threat of the ‘minor’ action is far more intense than that of the ‘major’ one, which generally feels distant and detached: likewise it’s easier to feel pity for a single child who loses his legs than for, say, a thousand faceless numbers killed in an earthquake.

 

Vinge’s ideas for his aliens and the general structure of the universe they inhabit are pretty inspired: the concept of gradually changing (like continental drift) physical tiers where light speed and ‘sentient’ high technology are or aren’t possible; the godlike ‘Powers’; and perhaps best of all the whole ‘tines’ thing. Perhaps the super ISP ‘Relay’ and related net postings will date – they are a bit too specifically extensions on present technology – but otherwise there’s some powerfully original stuff here.

 

The reason I didn’t give this book a higher rating is that despite the undeniably clever framework I didn’t enjoy much of the ride. Think, for example, of the Jurassic Park movie, misleadingly billed for kids. They had a massive budget and superb special effects, and could have given their young audience a lot of fun and innocent pleasure in the spectacle – instead most of the film was suspense/horror, and the overriding emotion the audience felt could have been just as effectively evoked by, say, Jack Nicholson sneaking/charging about with an axe. Forgive the extended analogy, but my point is that with all this wonderful scene setting and alternative intelligence, our overriding emotion for much of the book is suspense and frustration. From about a third of the way in the book is fairly dark, and even the pleasant relationships – such as the combination of the human child Jeffrey and the Amdi pups – in all the three major settings are placed under the constant shadow of treachery. The contexts are always interesting, at times ingenious (such as the fluid identity in the interplay of packs having to take on ‘singles’), but rarely enjoyable. Finally, for example, we get some humour with the likeable pilgrim pack having a joyride in the last few pages, but it’s a small aberration and most of the time he’s constricted by the dark plot. Likewise the dialogue is driven by the action and essentially transactional – there’s not a lot of clever, wise, funny, sharp or profound wordplay or observation.

 

It reminds me a bit of Robinson’s Red Mars: undeniably impressive, but I give a decent grade grudgingly. I can’t deny the quality of some of the work, but ultimately the books didn’t give me as much pleasure as some others (indeed, not as much as some others without as much originality or coherence). Still, I didn’t give Fire as high a rating because, with the possible exception of Flenser, the characters still are pretty stereotypical, and also because a few events seemed to be thrown in a bit randomly/lazily (such as the near destruction of an entire army – led by a five-hundred year old da Vinci-like genius – by a well known minor ‘danger’ previously seen as too insignificant to even mention) without any reasonable attempt to explain or integrate them. This, however, runs against the broad sweep of the book which is put together exceptionally well.

 

June 2003