Monday, 12 January 2015

A Fire Upon the Deep

At almost 600 pages my first book for 2015 was a bit of a doorstop, so it's taken me a while to read it. But that's good. I took the time to enjoy it and take it in, though whether I understood all of what was going on in A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge is quite another matter...

In an area of space called Straumli Realm a group of human scientists have been a bit busy. Too busy perhaps as they've unearthed and set free an ancient archive which at its heart is evil. Most of the scientists do not escape with their lives but a cargo ship carrying the Olsndot family and over 150 children in cryogenic stasis, do. 'The Blight' as it comes to be known only realises the humans have escaped, too late, and realises that this ship must be carrying something that can destroy it. The chase is on.

The ship lands on a planet but is crippled by a difficult landing. It's not long before the family are over-run by a race of beings. The mother and father are killed but the two children, 14 year old Johanna and 8 year old Jefri, survive. Johanna is kidnapped and taken to a city some days away and Jefri is taken prisoner by the people who have killed his parents. Neither of the children realise that the other has survived.

The strange race that inhabit this planet have multiple bodies but share a 'mind' or 'soul'. They resemble dogs with long necks, and one 'person' is usually made up of 5 to 8 bodies. They are telepathic in nature but the chaos of each others thoughts means that they cannot come within ten feet of each other apart from breeding purposes. It's a huge handicap as working together as a society is very hard. On the other hand people can live for hundreds of years because when one member dies, another is brought into the 'pack'.

Johanna has been take by the 'Woodcarvers', a group who like inventing things, and they also have her dataset computer. Jefri has no idea his murderous capturers, The Flenser sect, killed his parents. He is thrown into a certain room by mistake and this leads to him 'imprinting' on a pack of young puppies. The head of this sect, Steel, realises that Jefri and the pups, known as Amdi, are a genius combination and could eventually help him to understand the workings of the spacecraft. He sets about insinuating himself into their affections.

Meanwhile The Blight is ravaging parts of space, wiping out whole civilisations. Ravna Bergsndot works for Relay, a kind of spacewide internet provider. The Blight destroys the planet she's working on but she escapes with Pham Nuwem, a human that has been recontructed by an Old One to solve the problem of The Blight. Also with them, two skroderiders, beings that look like bushes on trollies. These four set off to find the planet where the Olsndot family landed as they suspect the ship was carrying the secret of how to destroy The Blight.

The journey for the various humans - Johanna and her brother, Jefri, Ravna and Pham's perilous spacetrip - will be long and arduous. And nothing is certain other than the fact that the fate of the galaxy is on their shoulders.

Ok, well that's a pretty miserable description of this very intricate, amazingly wide-ranging plot. The detail in this book is staggering. I haven't really tried to describe the galaxy that's been invented here as I'm not sure I really 'got it'. It seemed that there were various levels... from the very highest where people have 'transcended' to the highest form of existence, to the lowest where nothing works as it should and people struggle almost to exist. That very much over-simplifies it. The massive galaxy-wide internet type thing has newsgroups too, who discuss things and watch events millions of light-years away. And chatter of course. Some of which is included in the book.

I think most fascinating for me were Vinge's 'Tiners' the race of beings inhabiting the planet. The idea of a person consisting of many individual bodies which go to make up a single soul, each bringing various traits or specialities to the one, has to be unique. The obvious comparison is a pack of wolves but to make them 'one person' is an intriguing idea. Brilliant, in my opinion. In a way this was partly a 'boy and his dog' sort of story, not really my thing but it works beautifully here. The Woodcarvers were a fascinating lot too. Inventive, intelligent, inquisitive... friendly towards Johanna though she didn't at first realise it. There was a lot of subterfuge and treachery going on too. You felt for Jefri, who at eight was too young to have any idea what was really going on.

There's so much else I could say about this book, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone planning to read it. The things I have descibed happen within the first few chapters, believe you me there is a *lot* more. I can't remember when I last read a book with this much detail, where the author has created such a fascinating and unique universe. This is space-opera on a huge scale which is something I absolutely love. I search endlessly for books like this; occasionally I strike lucky and this time I definitely did. In a way it's a small story of humans trying to survive against great odds, the sort of story you find in loads of books, but put it into a setting like this and the story becomes 'epic'. I thought it was an amzing book and happily gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. What a book to start the year with!

A Fire Upon the Deep is my first book for Carl's Sci-Fi Experience and also my first book for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.



Val said...

A very attractive introduction to a book I would not normally have picked up if I see it I shall be at the very least Highly Tempted !
Great review!

DesLily said...

wow, I didn't realize that the 600 pg book you mentioned to me was a sci fi book...I have found though that if I like the characters the book is never "too long" lol. Strange how that happens! (like Drood!)

Glad you enjoyed this one! although when reading for so long about one story then it is hard to get it out of your mind to enjoy the next book!.. good luck lol

Bev Hankins said...

It's been a long time since I read anything by Vernor Vinge. This does sound like a good one.

Kailana said...

I have this. I just need to read it...

BooksPlease said...

Wow! No wonder it took a while to read this book - and it must have taken quite some time to write this review, which is not a'pretty miserable description', but a very good one - I could visualise the 'strange race' - in fact the whole book sounds amazing. I love books that take over my mind and this sounds as though it would do that.

Cath said...

Val: I'm happy to settle for 'Highly tempted'. LOL!

Pat: Nope, this wasn't too long. And Drood could've gone on and on and on for me. lol

That's true, so I've gone for a YA book that's very different.

Bev: He's a new author to me, one I'm very glad to have found.

Kelly: It'll be worth your time and effort.

Margaret: Thank you for your kind words about my review. Funnily enough it didn't take all that long. I find when I'm enthusiastic it doesn't. Glad you could visualise the aliens. I really have not come across these kinds of ideas before.

Peggy Ann said...

Great review, Cath!

Cath said...

Thanks, Peggy. It's easier to write a review of a book you've really enjoyed.

Susan said...

Yaaaay! right, time to tackle this while the cold keeps me indoors. :-) fabulous review, Cath.

Cath said...

Susan: Thank you! It's a book that will definitely feature in my best books of 2015 at the end of the year.

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