Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
With some books, as was the case with A Fire Upon the Deep, I began reading without any clear idea of what the book was about. The cover copy was less-than-helpful, because the person who wrote it had a clear grudge against commas. And, after reading the book, it's clear the cover copy is full of inaccuracies and hyperbole to the point of complete misrepresentation. Suffice it to say that, for the first chapter or two, I wondered what exactly was going on and when the story would start.
Not an auspicious beginning, no. The charm of going into a book tabula rasa is in discovering the entire narrative for yourself. I don't do it often, nor do I particularly recommend it. In a way, it was inevitable for A Fire Upon the Deep. Vinge confronts the reader with terms that are necessarily alien and forces us to gradually adapt to this new worldview. The galaxy is divided into roughly concentric "zones of thought" that dictate what sort of life and technology can exist in any given area. There aren't many new or original concepts in science fiction; I can't say if this is one of them, but it's certainly not that popular, because this is the first I've heard of it. The zones of thought quickly become a pivotal part of the plot, acting both as waymarkers for the Out of Band II's hurrying descent toward the world of the Tines and as a method of exploring the tenuous connection between morality and intelligence.
Categorizing the characters by intelligence isn't hard. There are Powers, like the Blight. They exist in the Transcend and are as close to "gods" as you'll get. Then there are the societies in the Beyond, where ultralight travel is possible. Ravna and the Riders come from there; hence, they consider themselves more civilized than those, like Pham Nuwen, who grew up in the Slow Zone. Also in the Slow Zone are the dog-like pack-beings known as the Tines. Unfortunately, ranking these characters by morality is more difficult. There are no nice people in A Fire Upon the Deep.
Let's start with the Tines. I loved this species, because they were so different from anything I've encountered lately. Physically they're like dogs, but that's where the resemblance stops. Each individual Tine comprises several members (seldom less than four or more than six) who communicate via "thought sound." The personalities of each of the "singleton" pups contributes to the gestalt of the entire individual. Thus, an individual Tine can survive even when he or she loses a member. It gives a Tine the ability to see more than one thing at a time (although the packs are limited by range, and if members go too far away from each other, the individual loses cohesion). This species alone would make for an interesting novel, and I loved watching the Tines adapt their jumpstarted technology to their own unique outlook.
Despite their very alien nature, the Tines' machinations and morality are comparable to humanity's. I loved the dramatic irony Vinge employed by playing Jefri and Johanna against each other unknowingly as the two kingdoms of Woodcarver and Steel went to war. It's obvious that Steel is Not Nice. Flenser, his former master, is a more interesting conundrum. With only two "original Flenser members" making up this new pack, Flenser is haunted by the "soul" of Tyrathect, who hates everything for which Flenser stands and is determined to be the winner in this soul-match. Woodcarver, Steel and Flenser's mortal enemy, struggles with her 500-year-old, decrepit soul even as she opens her mind to the idea of people from other stars. The Tines are just as flawed as humans, and thus possess just as much potential.
On the other extreme we have the ineffable Powers, of which the Blight is one. We don't know the ultimate goals of the Blight, but its immediate actions—enslavement of High Beyond civilizations and a death toll in the trillions—do seem rather immoral. Vinge, using message relay networks in a commentary on usegroups of the nineties, has some entities express disdain for all of the coverage of the Blight atrocities. Much in the way that genocide in Darfur is "terrible" to those of us living comfortably in Canada but just far away enough that it seldom affects us directly, there are some on the Net who claim that the Blight atrocities aren't as newsworthy as everyone makes them out to be. Meanwhile, other groups are using them as excuses to exterminate humanity, who are vermin-agents-of-the-Blight.
While we don't know the Blight's ultimate goals, it's safe to conclude it doesn't care about humanity and other sentient beings. So in that sense, we can condemn its actions. But what of the actions of humans, like Ravna and Pham, and their allies? In their defeat of the Blight, they indirectly kill billions and strand planets in the Slow Zone—is that moral? Probably not. Is it necessary? Probably. Although the resolution to the main conflict is somewhat quick and almost a deus ex machina, it's neither easy nor free of consequences. Blueshell's sacrifice is the most poignant part of the book, and in many ways it's the true climax—everything after that is a somewhat predictable resolution.
There's no question that A Fire Upon the Deep is a novel of massive scope in both setting and concepts. It takes place on a galactic level, and it also challenges us with the zones of thought, the Tines, Relay, Powers, godshatter, etc. Vinge packs more ideas into this single book (which really isn't that long) than most authors pack into a trilogy. Like many massive stories, however, the narrative is left with nowhere to go after it has delivered the protagonists to the final showdown. With Straumli Realm and Sjana Kei destroyed, Johanna, Jefri, and Ravna have no place to go (assuming they could somehow leave the planet of the Tines and escape the Slow Zone). Humanity will essentially start over on the Tines' world.
I loved the story of Woodcarver versus Steel and the humans and Riders caught in the middle. While Vinge introduces so many other, vaster concepts, he doesn't exploit them for their full potential. The same goes for characterization: what's up with Ravna and Pham's relationship? She falls for him, obviously, but then his behaviour toward the Riders puts him out of her good graces. Yet Vinge barely telegraphs any of their feelings about that alienation, about the awkwardness of being the only two human beings for several hundred light-years. Ravna, in particular, has lost everyone she knew or loved twice over—once at Relay, and then once at Sjana Kei—but her grieving period is off-screen.
For all the action and plot that takes place in this book, the actual character interaction is surprisingly sparse. Sometimes the all-too-frequent Net messages seem to stand in for what should have been more developed scenes with more developed characters. What happened to such intriguing characters as Grondr, Ravna's boss in the Vrinimi Organization? I would have loved to learn more about this seemingly omnipresent bureaucracy.
Far be it from me to tell an author what to include in his story. As much as I liked A Fire Upon the Deep, I just feel like I've been shown something behind the scenes, something that could have been so much more, and now I'm not as satisfied with what I got. If you're as much a fan of space opera as I am, you'll enjoy A Fire Upon the Deep—you just won't be sated by it.