What sci-fi oughtta be
I tried to describe what I liked about this book by telling my father, «it’s confusing.» I’m not sure that I made any sense then, but this is what scifi should be. Vinge presents us with alien races and theories of galactic organization almost entirely without exposition. There’s no «The Kzinti were a razor-toothed warrior race resembling eight-foot tall cats» or anything like that. One alien race the reader is introduced to entirely through first-person accounts from the aliens’ perspective. Each detail is taken for granted and the reader gets to piece together what’s going on without much help from the omniscient narrator.
So, yes, it’s confusing. Reading A Fire Upon The Deep is like being plunged suddenly into an alien universe, left to make false starts theorizing about the events we’re reading. In the end, although the «learning curve» is a bit steep, it’s a more developed, more dimensional, more believable universe than I’ve ever encountered in science fiction. And I’ve read a bunch of sci-fi.
AFUTD is an all-day sucker, too. It took several weeks of admittedly sporadic reading to get through. I don’t know how ebook pages translate to real book pages, but all too often I get through fiction in a disappointingly rapid time, and feel cheated, as though the author just didn’t have the sticktoitiveness to write something with depth or complexity. Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code comes to mind. You mean that’s all?
At 1930 (ebook) pages without annotation, AFUTD weighs in at about one-third the length of the New Revised Standard Version Bible, ebook edition. So that’s a very satisfyingly thick book.
Vinge also knows a thing or two about pacing. Sometimes I worry that I’ve grown jaded, but AFUTD surprised me by making my pulse pound as I read of an attack or a close escape from danger. As ponderous and complex as some of the conceptual set-up is, Vinge switches gear and capitalizes on the care he’s taken crafting the universe by disrupting the status quo and making the reader run for dear life along with some of the characters. This is no slow brain-teaser; it’s a rapid-fire page-turner, but smart.
I look forward to reading more of Vinge’s work.