Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

The problem with hype is something like the line the Joker met Batman’s first steps at interrogation with: it leads with the head, leaving reaction somewhat fuzzy. Don’t get me wrong, though—this isn’t going to be “one of THOSE reviews.”

For years, I’ve heard this book (and at least its immediate sequel, in all honesty) referenced as classics of not only the Space Opera genre, but the Hard SF genre at large. Big ideas. Big space. Lots of text to lose yourself in. Yet the fact is: I did not love it. Not nearly as much as everyone around me seems to think I should, at any rate. Rather than spend the time pondering why I’m running one way when the rest of the pack (there’s dogs afoot in here, you know) is running the other, I’m just going to lay things out as I would for any other.

The book is solidly written, intelligent, with a broad concept of world-building that encompasses, naturally, a whole universe—and a uniquely structured one at that. Detail, detail, detail—that is what lies at the core of this book, which becomes even more apparent if one takes the time to read the author’s own notes on the work.

It is also dense. It is not riveting, or thrilling, or terribly gripping—this is not sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat fiction, but rather, lean back, read, and read again fiction to try and keep the whole scope of its creativity straight. It takes us to a galaxy where aliens with pack minds, malevolent “powers” and zones of thought—I.E. stratifications within the galaxy each with its own different levels of potential technology and capabilities—abound.

Yet I am a man that loves character, makes it his bread and butter. Nothing connects you to a universe like a strong character—and they were lacking here. The Tines—the pack-minded inhabitants of the book’s main setting—are a fascinating study in the possibilities of other life, managing to find ground between the oft touted sci-fi extremes of mankind’s individualism and outright FOR THE SWARM mentalities. Other characters, above and beyond the confines of the Tines, however, were not similarly fleshed out—there was an underlying shallowness to the depth that disappointed me. For that matter, many a heavy or dense notion could have been better fleshed out through some of these characters, rather than lengthy explanation.

For that matter, the villain—the Blight—is…well, not much of an evil presence. Day to day struggle on Tines feels more ominous than that entity—beyond the prologue, it scarcely seems a clear and present threat; instead, it feels like a removed opportunity, a binding thread that is, nevertheless, a little loose.

In short? I wanted more character growth. I wanted more plot. I loved the world-building, but there is building a universe and giving that universe life, and I feel that’s the line Vinge tripped on here.