As far as expansive space operas go, this novel is mind-blowing. The scope of the worldbuilding, richness of characters and attention to detail are impressive, any they highlight the efficient writing that makes reading this book a true pleasure. Add to it the huge influence the worldbuilding exerted over future science fiction works, and you’d have a bona fide classic, if it wasn’t for a few shortcuts taken with the protagonists.
In this setting, the universe is divided into several technological zones. This is a basic physical fact, not an arbitrary boundary. Closest to the galactic center, the prevailing physical laws don’t allow for any technology, and higher organisms may even die. As a traveler moves away from the center, the conditions become more favorable, and more advanced technology works. The Slow Zone is where Earth is located, and our current technology is appropriate for its conditions. Farther away, more advanced automation, faster than light travel, and even transcendence are possible.
The galaxy is an enormous place, and everyone finds their niche here. Mankind is but one of a myriad of species, but even so they carved a large space for themselves. On one planet, human archeologists uncover an ancient artificial intelligence, which, once awakened, seeks to dominate the universe. Those who are not enslaved are mercilessly killed off, and numerous civilizations are promptly destroyed as this Blight spreads across the universe. However, one human vessel manages to escape. It carries a family of two siblings with their parents, as well as a larger number of other children preserved in hypersleep.
The ship lands on a planet in the Slow Zone. The parents are promptly killed by the natives, the girl, Johanna, is grievously wounded and smuggled out from the battlefield, while her little brother Jefri is captured by the attackers, who also seize the ship. The natives are a dog-like species, called Tines, who live in packs of up to half a dozen. Individually, they have the intellect of a drooling idiot, but as a telepathically connected pack, they are capable of rational thought that helped to bring up their society to a medieval level. Some packs are extremely gifted in mathematics, and all appear to be highly proficient with languages. They learn the human language very quickly, and communicating with the children triggers an enormous technological jump in their civilization.
The pack structure of the Tines has one other important feature: as individual pack members die, they can be replaced by new ones, preserving the knowledge and memories of the pack. As a result, many packs are centuries old, and familial ties are truly convoluted. The central figure in this world is Woodcarver, the ruler of one faction, but also the parent of Flenser, who attempted to carve out his own empire by literally carving up other Tines. Flenser’s protégé, Lord Steel, is currently leading the war-like faction that murdered the humans. Steel holds Jefri captive under false pretenses, while Woodcarver nurses Johanna back to life. Jefri, at Steel’s urging, manages to send a distress call across the universe. Steel hopes for more ships to arrive, increasing his technology pool.
The distress signal is picked up by the Relay community and its only human, Ravna. At that time, a transcendent being that visits Relay creates another human from dead corpses and gives him the personality and memories of Pham Nuwen, one of the dead humans. Ravna, analyzing the distress signal, suspects that the crashed ship may have carried something that could help to stop the Blight, and she convinces her employers to send her and Pham to investigate. They escape Relay just in time, as the Blight launches an attack.
En route to the Tines’ world, a coalition of species is assembled to attack human colonies, whom they blame for spreading the Blight. They manage to destroy Ravna’s home world, even though a fleet of their defense ships manages to escape and pursue the attackers. Initially inconspicuous, Ravna’s ship is identified as carrying humans, and Ravna’s goal becomes public knowledge. As she and Pham flee towards the Tines, three fleets pick up a pursuit: a fleet assembled by the Blight that tries to stop them, the coalition intent on wiping out mankind, and the human defense fleet pursuing the coalition. Ravna manages to contact the defense fleet and persuade them to engage the Blight fleet. A battle ensues, and both fleets are damaged.
In the meantime, another battle is brewing among the Tines. Woodcarver decided to deal with Lord Steel, and with Johanna’s help she equipped her army with early canons and launched an incursion towards Steel’s castle. Steel, however, coached Jefri to request help from Ravna, and during Woodcarver’s assault on Steel’s castle, the newly arrived Pham attacks Woodcarver’s forces. During the battle he spots Johanna and realizes that Steel lied to them. With a little luck and some ingenuity, Jefri escapes Steel, and once he is no longer a hostage, Pham joins forces with Woodcarver and together they defeat Steel, clearing the way to the ship and its potential weapon against the Blight, mere hours before the Blight fleet arrives to blow up the entire planet.
Vinge’s book is, first and foremost, an exercise in worldbuilding. His universe where different technological zones exist, and boundaries between the zones may shift, sometimes violently, has inspired later works, most notably Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World, which in turn inspired N. K. Jemisin’s Broken World trilogy, which won three consecutive Hugo awards. The scale and variety of Vinge’s universe rivals Greg Bear’s Anvil of Stars, which was published the same year, and may have served as inspiration for other works by Reynolds. However, where Vinge’s worldbuilding really shines is the portrayal of alien races.
The Tines are very inventive and extremely well developed, both from a physical and societal perspective. There are numerous implications of a society consisting of packs of animals, and Vinge takes great delight exploring them. He keeps his exposition at a minimum, however, especially at the beginning of the book, letting the reader to figure out what is actually going on. The author strikes a very delicate balance between obfuscating the alien physiology too much and giving it away too easily, which leads to a very rewarding reading experience. I felt that I worked towards the realization of what the Tines were, but I never got frustrated with a lack of hints.
Unfortunately, the amount of worldbuilding overshadows the protagonists. With the exception of Pham, who is such an unpredictable character that most of the time he is genuinely unlikable, everyone else is extremely one-dimensional. Vinge goes even as far as to give the Tines names that describe their personalities, and these personalities never change in the story. The only element of characterization I truly appreciated was that the two children acted appropriately to their age. Too often, especially in science fiction books, children appear far more mature than they ought to be.
One aspect of the book, which I believe is not appreciated enough, is the writing. Just to write a brief synopsis of the story took up much more space than I dedicate to a book of this size, and I left out entire side stories and alien races, at least one of which is quite prominent in the narrative. Yet, such rich worldbuilding and story are neatly and efficiently packaged in a single volume, and never during my reading did I feel lost or frustrated with the text. Vernor Vinge showcases his mastery over the written word, at a level only very few other writers have achieved.
Vinge’s inventive worldbuilding, especially in developing non-human civilizations, and his big concept ideas can only be appreciated thanks to his efficient writing. A Fire Upon the Deep is very easy flowing, and despite its size it can be read in a few evenings. It deservedly co-won the Hugo Award, and elements of the narrative became hugely influential in later science fiction literature. Had the author spent more time developing his characters, this novel would be a true classic and easily among top science fiction books of the 20th century.