Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review of "A Fire upon the Deep" by Vernor Vinge

Featuring spiny space ships, comical alien species, and dark cloud interplanetary good vs. evil, Vernor Vinge’s 1992 A Fire Upon the Deep bears all the hallmarks of Golden Age science fiction.  But what cements its position within the era is its decidedly comic book touch.  At no times does the reader feel convinced of the seriousness of the story, yet on it moves, one loosely sketched scene following the next.  Further symptoms include characters which serve only to move the plot, dialogue taken from a low-budget action film, and scenes so half-heartedly detailed that plausibility evaporates.  Potential abound, the first book of Vinge’s Zones of Thought series is unfortunately nothing more than b-lit space adventure.

A mathematician by day, writer by night, Vinge’s primary calling in life is plastered across the pages.  Plain, workaday words relate action and thought in the most simplistic fashion.  There is not a beautiful or touching phrase or scene to be found in the whole book despite the tragedies that befall some of the characters.  In scientific fashion, the book does contain a few inventive ideas and the plot is outlined well; the Tine species and the concept of the galaxy being divided into differing zones of intelligence are unique.  But like the black and white numbers used to calculate the length of an arc, Vinge’s novel lacks any of the colorful details that flesh out his ideas and make them fully visible to the imagination.  Lifeless and listless, the story’s potential hovers continuously beneath the surface, trying to break free of its lackluster prose.  More directly stated, a better writer would have unpacked Vinge’s universe word by word, the species and characters brought to life in the reader’s imagination through vivid, lifelike description and delicate wordplay.  

And there are further complaints, beginning with some of the dubious circumstances Vinge foists upon readers.  Number one is an extremely suspect aspect of Tine society.  The Tines a race of sapient canines walking on four paws, it’s difficult to imagine them erecting castles, smelting iron, publishing books, and constructing two-way radios with only their noses and incisors, not an opposable thumb or hand among them.  (You want dogs in sailboats, there are dogs in sailboats.)  Number two is the lack of foresight with regards to technology.  Set literally billions of years in the future, spaceships exist and can travel at nearly the speed of light, however, people are still communicating with flat screen video via network channels maxed out at 10mb/s.  Only 20 years have passed since A Fire upon the Deep was published and we’ve already overtaken that rate - not to mention messaging has been made more efficient than Usenet style memos.  The list of anachronisms goes on, but I digress.

Given these aspects, subtlety and maturity are not epithets a critic would bestow on this work of pulp fiction.  Lines such as: “So you mean the evil lord has been inside our computer all along?“ are par for the A Fire upon the Deep course.  This kind of dialogue suggests that Vinge takes the intelligence of his readership lightly.  Thus, for those looking for more understated dialogue, a plot sometimes hidden between the lines, and a fineness of detail that portrays insight into the human condition, it’s best to look elsewhere; A Fire upon the Deep reads like the cheap novelization of a comic book.  

In the end, A Fire Upon the Deep is for those who enjoy the less-than-serious, adventurous comic book side of the Golden Age of science fiction.  With blatantly good vs. the blatantly evil, anthropomorphized aliens, humans saving the day, and an anachronistic mix of technology, it offers much the same as the pulp offerings of sci-fi in the middle of the 20th century.  For those who want space adventure that cuts with a more realistic edge and contains real themes, try Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos or Banks’ Culture SeriesA Fire upon the Deep is just Disney in space.


  1. Disney in space? Ridiculous.
    One of the greatest sci-fi novels of the last 30 years.

    1. And you are not the only one who feels that way. I could just never get into the novel. It all seemed a big joke. In fact, there were several moments I thought it was a work of satire. You want innocent children in trouble? Check? You want dogs piloting sailboats? Check. You want tree people in wagons for comic relief? Check. You want super-mega-hyper-evil in black cloud form? Check. You want dialogue like: "The evil lord has been inside our computer the whole time?!?!" Check. You want highly predictable plot? Check. And on and on... I kept waiting for Pizza the Hut to jump out and say Boo!

      A Fire upon the Deep is B-grade sci-fi, just like Disney's John Carter. Just picture it in film format. I mean, dogs in sailboats! Only Disney would attempt to pull something like that off. There is obviously a place for such entertainment, I just couldn't buy into it. Your horizons must be broader than mine.

  2. This review is absolutely ridiculous. I read this after reading a review of a Vernor Vinge novella (that I thought was equally ridiculous) and wrote something close to an essay and deleted (most of it). Based on what the reviews I've seen, you are not a space opera fan (or at least do not enjoy many well regarded authors in the genre) and should stop pretending to be some critic of the genre. I don't understand how you can enjoy Hyperion and the Culture Series and give 1 or 2 star reviews on brilliant books by authors like Vernor Vinge and Alastair Reynolds. Great literature doesn't have to be driven by the characters development and dialogue. It can be driven by the Universe the author creates. Yes the characters are not as complex as some of the classic works of fiction, but they don't need to be in this type of book.

    Seriously "dogs piloting sailboats"... if that is what you got out of this book you clearly didn't understand what was going on, and that is on you, not Vernor Vinge.

    I am guessing this difference in opinion is based on the fact I enjoy fiction written by scientists; it tends to be complex and compelling for someone who is studying to become a scientist (as well as others interested in the sciences outside of there use as literary devices). I can see how it is not for everyone, but this review was so horrible it made me angry enough to write this all out.

    Summary: This review is pretentious crap, as are many of the sci-fi reviews on this website.

    1. Reality check:

      Exhibit A: "non-fans of space opera are not allowed to critique space opera" This is like saying non-Democrats cannot criticize democrats. Reality check failed. Logic does not compute.

      Exhibit B: "Great literature can be driven by the world its in." Reality check passed. Caveat: A well-built world is not enough to have great literature. Other elements are necessary. Would the commenter please provide evidence of other such elements in A Fire upon the Deep?

      Exhibit C: "Dogs piloting sailboats is the only thing the reviewer took away from the novel". Reality check failed. The review goes into some relative detail about numerous issues the novel has. Commenter should consider improving cognitive skills to ensure such oversights do not happen in the future. *howls at the moon*

      Exhibit D: "A Fire upon the Deep is complex and compelling for its science." Reality check failed. Dogs cannot pilot sailboats or build civilizations. Science failed. Reality failed. FAIL. Fail. fail. Disney, success!!.

      Exhibit E: "This review is pretentious crap," Reality check passed - or so say the panel of dogs voting on the quality of the review (though they do say it could do with more soup bones and sunny patches to laze in).

      Exhibit F: "Review made commenter angry" Reality check failed. Logic does not compute. Review critiques book, not commenter. System confused..

      In all seriousness, perhaps you need to take a nice holiday to get away from the things in life that are stressing you out? It's just a book, and I just wrote a review. No need to get angry. If you think the novel is 'great literature,' please point out to me the qualities of the book which I apparently missed that make it great, no need to get personal or insulting.

  3. "The list of anachronisms goes on, but I digress."

    And yet you have the temerity to complain at length in your second paragraph about the quality of Vinge's writing.

    You may also choose to bemoan the fact that Vinge's vision of the Internet hasn't been borne out by history - but your reply to anonymous confirms just how brilliantly Vinge captured what remains to this day the prevailing culture & voice of those who are most populous on the Net.

  4. I broadly agree with the review above. This book lacks many aspects I look for in good SciFi - and yes, perhaps I am a snob. But I want it all: technology AND character driven plot sketched only by dialogue and description. There are some original ideas here, but the holes are massive. Sometimes the author even confesses his own incredulity about the plot "Physically, the planet was near the human ideal—wonderful good luck after all the bad"....
    "On the other hand, there was intelligent life here" To the list of good SciFi above (Culture, Hyperion) I'd add the Southern Reach Trilogy.