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A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
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Dec 28, 08

bookshelves: fiction, science-fiction
Read in December, 2006

This is the galaxy in the unimaginably distant future, populated with millions of species. The shape of civilizations is dictated by the shape of the galaxy: close in at the core is the “slowness,” the place where only sublight travel is possible. Farther out is the “beyond,” where FTL drives function and cross-system communication passes on great data pipelines, and very advanced technology can begin to be truly sentient. And above that is the “transcend,” where automation goes beyond sentience into transcendence, where the great powers operate. A human expedition is exploring an ancient archive abandoned in the transcend, where they awaken a very old, very nasty power defeated billions of years ago. We begin with the destruction of the expedition, the few survivors fleeing down the galaxy to the very edge of the slowness with something that just might be able to save everyone. The malevolent power is hot on their trail, as is a rag-tag band of its other surviving victims – humans and aliens and the man who was possessed by a defeated opposing power. The book plays with ideas of sentience, of communication, of information systems. The awakened power begins to absorb civilizations by the hundreds above, and far below the survivors are caught up in the political struggles of primitive, doglike, group-minded aliens.

My reactions to this book went something like this:

Pp 1-200: Wow, that’s fabulous world building. And great ideas. But it is so very much a hard SF novel, and I don’t entirely care about these people.

Pp 200-400: Take it back, the character work has gotten a lot better. And ooh, that was neat.

Pp 400-600: Okay what? That was cheating. Also annoying.

I chronicle this because the last reaction shouldn’t necessarily overpower the first two – this really is a fantastic hard SF novel in concept and execution. A big fucking idea book, and I do love those. But I never quite tipped over the edge from reading and enjoying into ravening need to continue. I think, partly, it’s that the book plays with the omniscient point of view as it cycles between the expedition survivors (two young children), their wood-be rescuers, and a cast of primitive aliens on the world they came to. And I have an increasingly allergic reaction to this particular style where the reader knows who the bad guys are but the heroes don’t. The style also allowed an ending which was reaching to say something profound about individual destiny and vast, multi-civilization communication/automation/group sentience. Instead, it felt lazy and unsatisfying, full of really disturbing implications that were barely even blinked at.

I neither recommend nor anti-rec this book because there are people out there who will love bits of it so much that nothing else will matter. I just wasn’t one of them.

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