“Sometimes the biggest disasters aren’t noticed at all— no one’s around to write horror stories.”
One of the best science-fiction experiences I’ve ever had was reading Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep. I read it a few years ago but was inspired to write this review now because it’s the Tor book club’s free ebook this month–and I am telling you right now, as your doctor, that this is one of those times you need to accept what the universe is offering you. Take the book. Do it.
This novel found me in the same way it might have just found you. It fell into my Kindle as a free ebook, via a science-fiction list. I didn’t know anything about it and the cover and typography (below) was off-putting enough that normally I’d dismiss it without a second thought, but for some reason I gave it a shot, and then I barely came up for air until it was finished.
The opening might be a little challenging if it’s not what you’re used to (and it’s probably not what many readers are used to), but even if you’re not sure about it to start with, push on anyway. Everything will fall into place, and those first few chapters will become a treat to revisit later.
Or maybe, like me, you’ll be entranced from the creeping horror of the prologue. Our intro to Vinge’s world is to witness the birthing of two super-intelligent minds. A group of human archaeologists have landed on a planet somewhere in the Milky Way and are digging around in an ancient archive… a data library whose secret has been locked away for something like 5 billion years. Their oblivious meddling triggers the flowering of two new consciousness, and the prologue is told from the perspective of these “newborns.” They are not meant to exist… and they know it.
The puny humans are slow to comprehend what they’ve awoken, and by the time they do realize, it’s too late.
The change was small for all its cosmic significance. For the humans remaining around, a moment of horror, staring at their displays, realizing that all their fears were true (not realizing how much worse was true).
After the ominous prologue, the novel drops into the POV of a child who has just crash-landed on another planet, somewhere far away. She and her brother are strangers in a strange land, and they serve as innocent, unreliable narrators of this new world.
But they’re not the only POVs we’re gonna get… we also have the Tines, the beings of this world where the strange “mantis aliens” have crash-landed. Their plots are essentially first-contact stories, and their culture and way of seeing the world make up some of my favorite moments in the book. I won’t say more about them so you can enjoy discovering them yourself. Then there’s Ravna the librarian who is trying to rescue the children, along with Phan, her male companion who has ancient memories and a Frankensteinish past.
It’s hard to capture the kaleidoscope of ideas you’ll experience in this novel, but here are just a few of the things you can expect to read about: love, friendship, cosmic horrors, galactic chase sequences, telepathy, deception, malevolent super-intelligence, adorable aliens, medieval societies, spiteful lords, hive-minds, interstellar internet forums, Zones of Thought, and god-like beings who sail through the upper reaches of our galaxy while we all dwell here in the abyss.
The novel definitely has its flaws. Some of the names are a bit naff, certain side characters are only lightly veiled archetypes, and there’s some slowdowns in the pacing and plot. But any clunkiness is more than made up for by the complex and imaginative world-building, and the riveting view-points of most characters. Fire Upon the Deep is really a fire upon the brain, because it lights up your imagination and sparks fresh wonder for what’s possible in fiction, and in the universe itself.
I can’t say much more, because you need to read this novel. And also because some of the most engaging characters and ideas sound stupid when you say them aloud… like, I’m afraid to mention there are talking plants who ride around in carts. Just, trust me, okay? It will all make sense, and it will be beautiful.