Book review in one tweet
Two humans and two wheeled houseplants race across the galaxy to stop a demonic supercomputer and save 2 kids from a bunch of evil rat-dogs.
How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.
I picked up A Fire Upon the Deep from a 2011 NPR list of the 100 best sci-fi and fantasy books of all time. I wanted to get The Mists of Avalon but the library's copy was checked out. A Fire Upon the Deep was a wonderful consolation prize, however, with plenty of action and big ideas to keep me fully engrossed. I also really like Vernor Vinge's name. Well done, Vernor Vinge's parents.
The story begins when a colony of humans accidentally builds a hyper-intelligent artificial intelligence called The Perversion. As you might expect from the name, The Perversion isn't very nice, and it soon kills most of the humans and begins a slow takeover of the rest of the galaxy. A family of four manages to escape however, carrying a weapon that could stop The Perversion from spreading further. The family crash-lands on a planet full of intelligent dog-rats, who kill the adults and take the children captive.
Meanwhile, the spread of The Perversion leads to an attempted rescue mission of the children and the weapon they hold, conducted by a couple of humans and a couple of "Riders," aliens that are sort of like intelligent house plants with wheels and short term memory loss.
The dog-rats are one of the most fascinating species of aliens I've ever encountered in the pages of fiction (or in real life). Each dog-rat "person" is made up of multiple "members," and each member has a distinct body and brain. The dog-rats "think" through specialized sound waves, which travel from member to member, coordinating their movements like fingers on a hand. So where a human sees five different dog-rats working together like a circus act, the other dog-rats simply see one being.
This is sci-fi at its best, raising all sorts of fun questions. How does an individual emerge from a multitude of parts? What is the relationship between soul and body (or bodies, in the case of the dog-rats)? How much does an individual have to change in order to be, effectively, a new person? And what happens when one part of yourself battles the other for control over the soul? A Fire Upon the Deep asks these questions and more.
When a story is as big as this one, expanding to the size of the galaxy, there's a distinct danger that individual human (or super dog-rat, or short-term-memory-loss plant) actions will shrink to insignificance in comparison. This shrinking is a good thing to the extent that it leads to humility, but there's a fine line between humility and despair. At times, Double-V walks both sides of that line, but ultimately A Fire Upon the Deep comes down on the side of hope, the side where love matters, and where the greatest love is shown when a human/dog-rat/plant lays down their life for a friend.
8 wizard staffs (out of 10)
A Fire Upon the Deep has pretty much everything you would want from a science fiction book: epic scale, weirdly fascinating alien life forms, blaster fights, immanent threat of complete galactic disaster, and real human emotion. I docked it a couple staffs because the middle third of the book is rather slow, keeping half the characters in cold storage in the midst of space. That's a nitpick, though. It's well worth the time.
4 cold, frosty beers (out of 10)
Not a book for beginning sci-fi readers. The jargon is heavy, and there's not a ton of hand-holding to get you grounded in the setting. If you can make it through the opening chapter, you might stand a chance.
Jordan Jeffers would like to take this opportunity to promote his new book, The Towers, an epic fantasy novel that will be released November 18. Early reviews on Facebook have been very flattering.