Monday, September 16, 2013

Hugo Winner Review: 1993 A Fire Upon The Deep

Vernor Vinge
Completed 9/10/2013, reviewed 9/16/2013
Rating:  3 stars

The back cover of the paperback edition of this book contains a quote praising this as a great space opera.  I’d heard the term.  I knew “Star Wars” was considered a space opera, but I wasn't exactly sure of the definition.  I did some reading of sources on the net to find one.  To my surprise, the definition is fluid.  It has been changing, evolving, going from a derogatory term to definition of a legitimate sub-genre.  Reviewing the list of Hugo winner’s I've read, and having done some preliminary scanning of reviews of those I haven’t, it appears to me that the ‘90s were the decade of the space opera Hugos.  "A Fire Upon The Deep" is one of these books.

The novel is complex, weaving multiple plots with multiple narratives.  There are two main plots.  The first is the survival of children marooned on a planet whose sentient race is a dog-like creature.  Called Tines, they have many of the characteristics of Earth dogs, but their sense of personhood is only complete when multiple individuals come together as a pack of four to eight dogs.

This plotline is great.  It’s imaginative and exciting.  There are many great characters: the two children Jeffri and Johanna, and the some of the Tines, Peregrine, Woodcarver, Scriber.  These characters are threatened by the deliciously evil Flenser and Steel, who are trying to overthrow the existing order with an army bred for aggression and obedience.    

In the second plotline, a rescue mission is launched on the heels of the potential destruction of the galaxy by an evil man-made entity called “The Blight.” It introduced the very interesting Skroderiders, a plant like sentient being that communicates and is mobile because of a computer/vehicle it rides on.  And the main humans are fairly interesting, Ravna and Pham.  These two humans and two Skroderiders take up the mission on the ship, the Out Of Bounds II, to save the children. 

I’d call this a penultimate space opera:  marooned children, a civil war, the destruction of the galaxy.  There’s a massive chase scene, a battle scene, a few narrow escape scenes, and, oh yeah, the soapy relationship between Ravna and Pham.

The narrative jumps back and forth between the two plotlines.  A good novel often has multiple plotlines and voices.  Here, though, I found it weakened of the excitement of the children with the Tines, and often left me with a feeling of incompleteness in the character development of the crew of the OOB.  Whenever the plot switched back to the OOB, I felt annoyed that I was leaving the world of the Tines.  But as the second plot would progress and the characters develop, the narrative would switch back.  Rather than organic and episodic, it usually felt stuttered.

I didn't like how Vinge introduced new characters.  Instead of bringing them in through the existing voices, he introduced new ones.  This introduced more disruption into the mix.    Then the characters leave the plot a chapter or two later.  This style reminded me of Stephen King, particularly in "Tommyknockers", where the main character’s sister is introduced with great detail in one chapter, and killed off in the next.  I didn't like it then, I didn't like it here.

Despite my frustration with the book’s format, I have to say that in the end, I thought the book was good.  The last 100 pages were incredibly exciting.  I think a good editor could have helped the author keep the excitement at a better pitch. I give this book three stars.

I’d like to point out that this book tied for the 1993 Hugo with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book I find this a travesty.  I thought “Doomsday” was far superior.  That book gripped me and I nearly cried at the end.  “A Fire Upon the Deep” had the potential with the marooned children plot, but over-reached and ended up just another space opera.  

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