Tuesday, 10 June 2014

A Fire Upon the Deep

Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon the Deep (1992)

I recall enjoying Vinge's The Peace War, and had since kept one eye open for this on the grounds of it apparently being his magnum opus. However, referring back to my review of The Peace War, written many, many centuries ago as a series of standing stones in a field to the right of the A46 as you pass Stoneleigh heading in the direction of Finham sewerage treatment plant, and reprinted in this collection, I find that my memory has lied, and that while I regarded The Peace War as chock full of great ideas, I found it otherwise quite a dull book. Sadly A Fire Upon the Deep isn't much of an improvement.

To give credit where it's due, Vinge is clearly a dab hand at massive brain-strangling concepts, and is able to write about them without jumping up and down shouting look at me with all my ideas so big as to make Einstein look like a wanker! For starters, I understand - possibly incorrectly but I can't be arsed to look it up - that Vinge's name is synonymous with the concept of technological singularity, the point at which technology is able to produce something superior to itself, and the future becomes a much stranger place than we could ever hope to predict. A Fire Upon the Deep appears to explore this general idea with the Blight, a near omniscient power born from a technological singularity many centuries before the story begins. To this cake he adds a peculiar yet believable race of pseudo-canine gestalt creatures, the Tines, of which an individual comprises four or five animals operating as a pack, liberally icing the result with a galaxy layered into zones by differing laws of physics, some more conducive to faster than light travel and artificial intelligence than others.

It's astonishing stuff, sure enough, and if you're going to have space opera, then it really needs to strive for the sort of scale invoked here, but...

One hundred pages in and, excepting some of the chapters depicting the pseudo-mediaeval Tine society, I was mostly too bored to take much of it in. I had a look at Wikipedia in the hope of working out what I'd just read. It sounded fairly interesting, so I started again. Ultimately it was okay, I guess, at least in so much as I made it to the end, but I'm still not sure quite why it needed to be six-hundred pages long. I think the problem is that most of it is written more or less in what I have come to think of as Doctor Who casual, the grammar and syntax of a twenty-something media studies graduate who writes television tie-in fiction influenced more by telly than by anything of the medium in which he - and it usually is he - is working. It's the narrative equivalent of Comic Sans. There's not much in the way of poetry. And sentences beginning with and abound, seemingly signifying a fear of commas, and there are parentheses all over (always an indication of someone who can't be bothered) and there's something called a godshatter, and some bloke achieves mastery over all of reality at the end just like in an X-Men comic, dramatised of course by short non-sentences which don't actually do anything, but which presumably represent some sort of ham-fisted attempt at crossing stream of consciousness imagery with a Nicolas Roeg film. Like this. Irritating. Very bad. Utter shite, in fact.

It's not terrible so much as that it lacks flair, and is in this case additionally handicapped by the conceit of having an entire galaxy chatting away, explaining the plot to itself on an enormous star-spanning internet message board, which doubtless seemed very futuristic back in 1992. The book does it's job, but that's about all, and there's a certain lazy tone wherein people decide to check it out or to take a serious look at themselves, yeah? In this regard, Vinge is a low level offender, and he at least keeps enough of the narrative together to prevent it turning into Larry Niven, but at six-hundred pages it's still far too much of not enough.

A Fire Upon the Deep is not without value, but on the other hand even Peter F. Hamilton does this sort of thing better. Actually fuck it - even Lionel Fanthorpe did this better in Galaxy 666 which similarly intrudes upon regions of the universe with variant physical laws, and did so with more charm.

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