The first time I read A Fire Upon the Deep
it expanded my mind: I was still a teeny-bopper and the concepts
and ideas that Vinge was casually playing with were literally
two or three steps beyond anything I had encountered before. For
an intellectual junky like myself, the book was like a shot of
adrenaline straight to the hippocampus.
In the years since then Iíve read more
Vinge; Iíve read Iain Banks; Iíve dabbled with Reynolds;
Iíve laid in some more background with Bester's masterpieces
and Brinís UpliftÖ
So this time I was able to really savor
what Vinge was offering here.
First, let me say this:
A Fire Upon the Deep is cool.
I mean, thereís just no other word for
it. Even after fourteen years, with hundreds of other works
drawing inspiration from it, A Fire Upon the Deep remains
a truly awesome work. If your sensawunda isnít being kicked
into overdrive on nearly every other page, then I name you a
jaded and tragically cynical soul.
Second, let me say this:
A Fire Upon the Deep is a testament
to Vingeís growing skill as a writer.
Let me give you an example: Early in the
book, Vinge dumps a character into his story as a clueless
newbie to the realities of his universe. This clueless fellow
allows Vinge to seamlessly integrate the basic exposition of his
setting into a series of ďas you NEED to know BobĒ speeches.
He invests these expository lumps with higher meaning because of
the immediate and touching impact their revelations have on the
characterís emotions and sense of self. Thatís pretty good:
Smooth handling of exposition in an active and character-focused
manner is one of the trickier elements of the science fiction
writerís craft. But what makes Vinge incessantly clever is
that he then seamlessly transforms the characterís role within
the narrative into a completely different form as soon as his
original purpose has been used up.
These types of subtle, sophisticated
storytelling techniques can be found throughout the entire book.
A Fire Upon the Deep is a mammoth novel, but thereís
not a wasted character or scene. Vinge demonstrates
authoritatively that he has achieved a mastery of his craft,
allowing his work to reach a whole new plateau.
Finally, let me say this:
A Fire Upon the Deep is a complex
Its plot stretches across multiple milieus
and involves several distinct casts of characters. Its thematic
mesh is expressed in varied and active ways. Itís an immensely
satisfying work, while still leaving the reader yearning to see
deeper into its hidden depths.
Another example: One of the most prevalent
themes in Vingeís work is the way in which technology impacts
the life of the individual. He carries that theme further by
looking at the way in which the changing lives of individuals
reshape society, and then he loops it back around on itself to
show how the reshaping of society also impacts the life
of the individual.
In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge plays
with this theme on multiple levels: He shows high technology
thrust haphazardly upon a primitive society. He mirrors that
theme by showing a transcendant technology thrust forcefully
upon a society of high technology. Simultaneously, on the
individual level, he is showing a primitive shaped by technology
a thousand years ahead of our own thrust into a society of even
higher technology. And then he mirrors that by showing the
children of high technology thrust into the extremely primitive.
Around the edges he shows societies yearning for ever greater
technological glories, contrasted by entities raised to the
level of godhood by their technology mucking about in the
playgrounds of technological children.
And in conclusion let me say this:
It is nearly impossible to satisfactorily
summarize the many and varied achievements of A Fire Upon the Deep.
I have not even begun to discuss, for example, Vingeís
masterful creation of a half dozen or so alien species utterly
inhuman in their countenance, utterly plausible in their nature,
and utterly fascinating in their execution. And even that
scarcely makes a meaningful touch on the tip of the iceberg.
Vingeís accomplishments are so varied, in
fact, that the worst criticism I have ever read of A Fire
Upon the Deep is this: ďI liked most of it, but there was
this one part/setting/character that did nothing for me.Ē
Vinge keeps so many balls in the air that itís almost
inevitable that some people will find a ball they didnít like.
But for the lucky multitude, the balls are all beautiful
creations in their own right, and the juggling act only adds to
There are few artistic creations which
truly earn the right to be called a masterpiece. A Fire Upon the Deep
is one of them.