03 May 2011
Review: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Despite being the self-ascribed science fiction enthusiast that I am, I often find a difficult-to-place lack in what science fiction I come across. It's not a technical deficiency, not that the author is incompetent in some way. It's more a matter of depth beyond reasonable capacity of a human being: After all, how can we expect accurate estimates of things dozens of centuries and millions of lightyears away from a single person? Surely, all of our "science fiction" is a mass of wild guesswork and vague prophecy.
And yet such ludicrous constructions, I think, can be very entertaining, and very rewarding to examine, perhaps somewhat like a magic trick is. Often I find that the more deeply hidden the assumptions and handwaves, the more thrilling the puzzle. The more convoluted and difficult to disbelieve a tale gets, the more persistent its haunting charm: And the taller the tale, the greater the charm. And, contrasting with A Fire Upon the Deep, this tantalizing intricacy of speculation is what I fail to find in a good quantity of science fiction.
The brainstorm that is Vinge's work is hardly anything that even the most arrogant, self-important know-it-all of readers can easily put down with short remarks of incredulity (and that's from experience!). New ideas evoked by the narrative dare you to think on them, to really think on them and how they fit together with everything else. The author is not secretive and mysterious about what originality he introduces, nor does he numb you with unending narcissistic retelling of every boring detail and piece of trivia. More importantly, soon after you humor the author's fancy and consider the implications and underlying principles of what is mentioned, you make the pleasant discovery that he has also thought his story out quite thoroughly.
The particulars of the genre aside, I found the politics and webs of intrigue to be wonderfully satisfying. The characters were believable (though not very deeply explored at the psychological and philosophical level) and the motivations made a lot of sense. The pacing was almost too good- costing me more than one night's sleep. My one piece of critique would be the Usenet-esque text messages which appear to be the core of what serves as a galaxy-wide internet in the book. Vernor Vinge has been amusingly conservative here: Countless species all across the galaxy have been happily wasting their cripplingly narrow bandwidth on flames, navel-gazing and complaints about cripplingly narrow bandwidth for god knows how long, just like some enormous early-90s newsgroup cloud. They even use Courier New font! The anachronism is almost comical. Fortunately, it does not influence the credibility of the rest of the setting, and the messages provide a nice break from the serious plot with a little playful jabbing at forum posters in general.
In all, this was a wonderful science fiction book, the sudden realization of my own imagination's glaring blindspots was excitingly reminiscent of my first forays into the genre. For those not new to science fiction, A Fire Upon the Deep will doubtless be a great read. I'm confident that it would not be less interesting to novices, either, however.