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Stuck in the slowness
on 14 October 2012
A Fire upon the Deep is half broad canvas space opera, half mediaeval fantasy.
This is a universe divided into "Zones of Thought". Near galactic cores, what we understand as the laws of physics hold, in the "slowness". The speed of light limits speed of thought, of electronic processing, and of travel.
Above lies the Beyond in which multiple species interact in a galactic civilisation. Above that, species have ascended to short lived god like status in the top (perhaps?) layer, the Transcendence.
In the Beyond, humans, who, as a race, have escaped the slowness at the bottom (at a time when, bizarrely judging by the names, Iceland seems to have won the struggle for cultural dominance) have awakened an ancient evil, a "perversion". A single ship escaping the catastrophe, and unknowingly carrying the counter to the evil crashlands on a backward world where canine creatures have evolved a pack-like telepathic/ultrasonic intelligence and fight wars with swords and crossbows
On the other side of the galaxy, a young human woman, her artificially created lover and their alien (apparent) allies, escape an attack by the perversion, seeking to take over both Beyond and Transcendence, and set out to recover the countermeasure. To add spice to their quest (yup, another quest novel) they are pursued by forces under the control of their adversay and by opportunists who blame humanity for the disaster and are seeking to eradicate homo-sapiens.
The space opera part of the book delivers vast space battles and huge artificial habitats, while the fantasy element provides scheming villains seeking to undermine rightful rulers.
Fire upon the deep is a contemporary of Iain M Banks' early Culture novels, and shares many themes such as a galactic civilisation built around vast artificial structures. Similarly Vinge's transcendence parallel's Banks' sublimation. It also pre-dates Peter F Hamilton's Nights Dawn and Commenwealth novels, and is a clear influence upon them. The post adolescent tone is very familiar and Vinge's dog-like Tines are a clear ancestor of Hamilton's Morning Light Mountain.
There is plenty of interesting stuff in here, even though not every idea comes off. Intelligent sea anemones anyone? Not really. The ending is pleasingly conclusive and really quite endearing, and some of the sections rip along at an exciting pace.
However, my biggest problem with this book is that it is all a bit heavy, a bit turgid. Maybe it's because I'm no great fan of fantasy, but the endless politicking and metaphorical cloak twirling on the Tines world just left me cold. Stop telling me how evil the villains are and just get on with the story.
So, its OK, if you have time to spare, and if you are a bigger fan of fantasy than I you'll probably enjoy it, but for me it lacked two things - lightness of touch, and a better editor. I didn't feel inspired to move onto the second book of the anthology immediately, I may come back to it in time.