Monday, March 14, 2016

A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge)

A Fire Upon the Deep
(The Zones of Thought series, Book 1)
Vernor Vinge
Fiction, Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Over the countless eons of the Milky Way's existence, civilization after civilization has struggled from planet-bound primitive to higher power... each discovering, in their own time, the Zones of Thought that govern everything from native intelligence to technological capabilities. From the Unthinking Depths at the galactic center, through the Slow Zone and Beyond, to the Transcendence where essential godhood and more awaits, sophont species rise and fall in endless tides. But some who rise high have less than altruistic intentions. Though transcended Powers often have limited lifespans, they sometimes leave gifts or traps behind for those who come later - and the humans of Straumli Realm just triggered the most terrible trap the galaxy has ever known. Even as the Blight spreads, enslaving the minds of whole species, one sliver of hope remains: a single ship escaped the closing jaws, headed for an obscure spot on the edge of the Beyond. If there's a countermeasure to be found, it's there.
Jefri and Johanna Olsndot were aboard the fleeing vessel when it came to the primitive, unnamed world - and the sole waking survivors when the doglike natives attacked. While nine-year-old Jefri was taken by the fighters, his older sister Johanna was smuggled away by their enemies. Each thinking the other dead, they find themselves alone among the peculiar Tines: pack intelligences unlike anything they've ever known, embroiled in an ongoing battle between two powerful leaders for control of their medieval world. Neither side wastes any time exploiting the aliens and their technology, with the starship becoming the ultimate prize - and none, not even the children, suspect its true value.
Meanwhile, the human Ravna Bergsndot, employee at a hub of the galactic communication network called the Known Net, finds herself embroiled in the plots of a transcended Power known as the Old One. When the enemy forces strike, she and a pair of treelike Skroderiders, along with a man who may or may not be a living relic of a lost human age, become part of the rescue crew dispatched to the Tines' world... with the Blight and other enemies hot on their trail.

REVIEW: This one lingered on my Currently Reading list for quite some time, for reasons that are part of what narrowly cost it a full fourth star in the ratings. Vinge presents some excellent ideas and a rich galactic milieu with deep history (even the Known Net is a relic of long-vanished civilizations, passed down and rediscovered and maintained through the ages) and very alien races, among whom humans are a middling-at-best species. The pack minds of the Tines in particular, and their civilization that has grown because of, and often in spite of, their limitations and abilities, makes for something nicely different. I also liked the idea of the Zones of Thought, evidently inspired by ancient notions of godhood being tied to distance from the ground and expanded to a galactic scale. However, it can't help but be thick going, overwhelming at times, with the deep space distances and almost mind-boggling switches between Zones. The humans claim to have risen (or re-risen, as species often experience numerous setbacks) from a matriarchal society and a near-legendary Age of Princesses, yet the weakest, most blubbery character in the book is the lady Ravna; she's perpetually overshadowed by the old-school spacer Pham Newen, whose memories may (or may not) be mere fabrication but whose raw nuts-and-bolts mentality gets them through far more scrapes than Ravna's emotional breakdowns. The "female" of the Skroderider pair also takes a back seat to her more forceful partner. A slew of characters compete for attention, in space and on Tines' World. Ultimately, the higher struggle with the Blight and the down-to-earth struggle planetside are resolved in a single battle that's as much about gunpowder and space-age weaponry as it is about the nature of Powers and the galactic zones of thought. Meanwhile, throughout the book, snippets of traffic from the Known Net add information and occasional local color to the tale; no matter the century or species, it seems like internet capability is an irresistible temptation to spout one's half-baked theories (and propagate viruses and spam) at the universe at large. In the balance, I liked it more than I didn't, but it just grew too dense at times for me to truly enjoy, plus the subtle sexism started grating on me somewhere past the halfway point. I'd still recommend it to anyone wanting a galaxy-spanning hard SF tale with interesting ideas.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Foundation (Isaac Asimov) - My Review
Star Rigger's Way (Jeffrey A. Carver) - My Review
Dune (Frank Herbert) - My Review

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