Monday, February 28, 2011

1995 Hugo and Locus – MIRROR DANCE by Lois McMaster Bujold

The third and final winner from Bujold’s Vorkasigan books, and the series continues to walk the tightrope between ridiculous pulp and smart, character-driven work, though this one tilts more towards the latter pole than any book in the series yet.

Since we last saw him, Miles Vorkasigan has picked up an evil clone, “Mark.” No, seriously. Created by enemies of Miles’ father, the clone has been brutally trained for assassination and infiltration. In the previous novel, he rebels against his creator. In this novel, he goes on a crusade against the amoral cloning syndicate that created him with disastrous results for Miles and his crew of mercenaries. Once again, you really need to read the previous books in the series to appreciate this one, especially Brothers in Arms, which introduces Mark.

This novel is meatier than the previous winners in the series, and I do think Bujold is trying to do some different things here. Most importantly, Miles is sidelined for most of the book. The novels’ voice has almost always been third-person limited with a narrow focus on Miles himself, but here, the focus shifts to Mark for more than half of the novel. It’d be easy to call Miles a “Mary Sue” – his talents for tactics and manipulation are pretty supernatural. Mark, on the other hand, is doubting, socially awkward, tormented, and a little insane. It is a change of pace from Miles, and this novel is far darker than previous entries (as usual, central characters are captured by the villains, but this time we get vicious torture alongside the usual villain posturing and improbable escape).

The idea of a clone does feel like the corniest of pulp science fiction tropes, even though it’s probably the most realistic sf concept. I think it’s because they always tend to pop out of a vat fully grown and are innately evil, have a psychic link to the original or both, which is all very silly. Clones should be a great way to explore ideas of family and identity, and that’s, for the most part, the direction that Bujold takes here. However, she’s more interested in Mark’s identity, as he is doomed to live under the shadow of the uber-awesome Miles. It’s an excellent opportunity for Bujold to do the character work she does so well.

My biggest issue is probably with the pacing. There’s a thrilling, breathless action sequence early on, then a very long section on Barrayar with Miles’ family, lacking in the usual political intrigue, and it all ends in a bit of an anti-climax. But, Bujold’s prose is a pleasure to read, as usual, and she does try some interesting and new things here.

The Vorkosigan series doesn’t really feel like it should be the Hugo-winningest series of all time, but it is a fun experience, and the character-based adventures are a nice change of pace from the Big Idea books that tend to dominate the Hugos. This is the best entry in the series so far, and the most deserving of prestigious awards.

Grade: B+

Friday, February 25, 2011

1994 Saturn – STARGATE

I saw this film when it first came out in theaters, and I’m not sure I would have believed you then if you told me that it would lead to one of the biggest science fiction franchise of all time. In full disclosure, I should mention that I’m not a fan of the franchise. I never really gave SG-1 or Atlantis a shot – I’ve never seen a full episode of either. I have seen a few episodes of SGU, which manages to combine some of the things that make me wary of Stargate in general with some of the worst traits of the Battlestar revival, like it’s grim and grinding misanthropy. I think I will give SG-1 a shot someday – I hear a lot of good things – but it might be a while.

This film also represents the rapid rise of Roland Emmerich as one of the new kings of science fiction blockbusters (though not particularly brainy ones). Emmerich’s style is very reminiscent of Steven Spielberg, and this film is at its best when it captures some of the sense of adventure and discovery in the Spielberg films its aping (the likes of Raiders and Close Encounters). Emphasis on “some” in that last sentence though. Emmerich is not Spielberg.

In the 1920s, archaeologists find a strange metal object with odd markings. Seventy years later, they still haven’t figured it out, but then they bring in brilliant Egyptologist and linguist Daniel Jackson (James Spader), who has some crazy theories about Egyptian history that, of course, turn out to be correct. Jackson renames the object a “stargate” and figures out how to use it in a couple of days. Then, the US military puts together an expedition through the stargate led by Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell). On the other side, they find some refugees from ancient Egypt who are still oppressed by aliens dressed as Egyptian gods. Typical Americans, O’Neil and Jackson try to convince these vaguely Arab people to enact a regime change, and many of them get killed in the process.

The film is short on explanation and details – much of the film is conducted in made-up languages – but the film has a solid concept, some very nice production design (especially the Egyptian god head-ornaments), and it’s generally pretty fun. The clich├ęd action scenes get a little tiresome, especially in the final act, but this film was quite a bit better than I remembered. It’s not a masterpiece of film, but it is what I’m coming to expect from Saturn winners: good effects and fun sf action.

Grade: B

Sunday, February 20, 2011

1994 Nebula – MOVING MARS by Greg Bear

What was it about Mars and science fiction in the early nineties? On top of this work and Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Ben Bova also had a novel about Martian settlement, titled, simply, Mars. Maybe there was a sense that we were only a generation or so away from a manned mission to the red planet….which we still seem to be. This novel really isn’t about Mars though, which is one of its problems.

The novel is narrated by Casseia Majumdar, a woman raised on Mars in the twenty-second century. In fact, we soon learn that the novel is an autobiography of sorts. A group of independent corporate entities called BMs run various portions of Mars, but different factions make efforts to create a united government by alliance or coercion. The novel begins with Casseia as a college student, rebelling against one of these efforts, but she eventually works her way into a united government. The biggest issue for Mars is independence from Earth, which is populous, technologically advanced, rich, and powerful. Artificial intelligences called "thinkers" are common there, as is nanotechnology, and most humans have enhanced themselves with these technologies. Casseia works to prevent Earth from overwhelming Mars, and she is close to a brilliant young man named Charles Franklin, who makes breakthroughs that could help achieve this goal.

This is my second encounter with Greg Bear – I’ve also read the novella version of Blood Music – and it seems that his strength lies in imagining new technologies and considering their implications. That’s science fiction at its most basic. He does a great job with it for most of this novel…with one big exception. Unfortunately, that exception becomes the crux of the book, and everything else in the novel really exists to serve this one idea. Without giving anything away (though the title is a big hint), I’ll say that the deck is stacked in both interplanetary politics and interpersonal relationships so that this new super-technology will be used, despite some of its more terrifying implications. In the end, this is no longer a story about Mars, or even about Casseia, though she’s always at the center of things, it’s about this new tech. Worse still, the technology opens up some very interesting doors, but Bear wants to tell the story of its utilization, and is more or less willing to stop there. I’m a lot more interested in how this technology will be used fifty or a hundred years after the novel’s end.

That said, the novel has a lot going for it. Casseia is a strong female character with complex emotions. She’s that rare character in science fiction – she’s smart and likable, but she makes mistakes, and she has weaknesses. She’s not an anti-hero or a Mary Sue; she feels like an actual human being, and that’s nice to see. The scenes on Earth and the depiction of its technologically driven youth culture are also quite well-rendered, as are scenes of fossil-hunting for Martian

But, the depiction of Mars itself fell flat, especially in comparison to Robinson’s work, and it was in the lead-up to the increasingly inexorable climax that the novel lost much of its appeal.

Grade: B-

Friday, February 18, 2011

1994 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1993 Saturn – JURASSIC PARK

Michael Crichton had an unhealthy obsession with amusement parks that tried to kill their patrons. Between his Jurassic Park franchise and his Westworld franchise, I can only assume that he had a very bad experience at Disneyland at some point in his life.

The titular park is filled with dinosaurs cloned from DNA discovered in prehistoric mosquitos fossilized in amber. It’s not all that far-fetched, other than the problem that we have no mosquito fossils from nearly that long ago. We do have a fair amount of mammoth DNA though, and scientists have speculated about developing clones and using elephants as surrogates. The film "Late Pleistocene Park" probably wouldn’t have grossed 900 bijillion dollars like this one though. The filmmakers also cheated by making their velociraptors twice as large as they really were, but paleontologists fixed that problem by discovering the larger utahraptors around the time of the film’s release.

Anyway, the plot: billionaire John Hammond brings in a group of scientists, a lawyer, and his grandchildren to examine the dinosaur-filled park that he’s building, but everything goes wrong and the dinosaurs run wild. It’s a fun romp, but the big attraction at the time was the dinosaurs themselves, which look a sight better than the first on-screen live action dinosaurs in 1925’s The Lost World. Between T2 and this film, we’re clearly in the midst of a cgi revolution, and I certainly remember feeling that at the time. Jurassic Park is far more ambitious as it attempts to use computer effects to create realistic living, moving creatures rather than silvery goo. As a result, the effects have not aged nearly as well. The running T-Rex and raptors still look pretty good, but the static shots that first reveal the prehistoric animals – which I remembered as awe-inspiring – look a bit like what you’d see in a cable documentary these days.

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed re-watching the film quite a bit. Overall, it’s aged better than I’d expected. I think there are two secrets to this success. The first in Spielberg’s direction – he’s at the peak of his abilities (Schindler’s List was released in the same year, believe it or not), and his talents for suspense and action show through. I also like Spielberg’s signature “smoky light beam” effect a lot more than J. J. Abrams' unhealthy lens-flare addiction. The performances also keep the film interesting – Spielberg has a talent for eliciting not-annoying performances from child actors and Sam Neill and Laura Dern are solid as the heroic paleontologists. Meanwhile, Sir Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum chew through the scenery as an eccentric billionaire and rockstar chaos mathematician, respectively. Even Samuel L. Jackson, in a minor role, keeps things lively. Everyone involved from the director to the actors to the effects people walk the line between serious suspense and pulp romp, and they’ve created a memorable classic in the process.

Don’t worry though, Spielberg proved in Jurassic Park II: The Lost World that he’s fully capable of making horrible films as well!

Grade: B+

Sunday, February 13, 2011

1994 Hugo and Locus - GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson’s sequel to his highly successful novel of Martian colonization is really more of the same. As far as recommendations go: don’t read this without reading Red Mars; if you liked Red Mars, you’ll probably like this; if you didn’t like Red Mars, you’ll probably hate this.

Robinson continues to explore the near future colonization and terraforming of our neighboring planet. The same debates continue: how thoroughly should Mars be terraformed? Does the pre-human, inorganic geology deserve preservation? Should Mars fight for its political independence for Earth? If so, what means should revolutionaries use? What kind of new society should Martians design alongside such a political independence? Robinson usually manages to present the nuances of various sides of these debates in the context of a convincing vision of Earth’s possible near-future history, and there are lots of scientific details/poetic descriptions of the Martian environment in the background.

Not that Robinson’s portrayal of the social situation is always 100% convincing. The consensus of the Martians on the issues of political independence and rejection of capitalism seem to come a bit too easily, for instance. You could argue that Robinson’s vision of capitalism as feudal and universally coercive is a straw man, and few historic revolutions have as broad a base of support as Robinson’s Martian Revolution. And, it takes hundreds of pages for Robinson to admit the obvious limitations of one of his favorite alternatives to capitalism on Mars – the gift economy (based on Native American economic practices). We also get a very convenient “good” corporation with an eccentric CEO called Praxis that doesn’t fit well in Robinson’s simplistic depiction of capitalism but becomes rather necessary to the plot. Still, Robinson’s knowledge of social theory surpasses all of the works I’ve read so far on this blog.

The real center of this novel, as in Red Mars, is the characters. In all three books, each chapter focuses on a single character’s point of view. Due to longevity treatments, many of the original colonists still survive, even though the climax of this novel takes place about a century after their initial landing. They’re still petty, argumentative, and, well, often annoying. Whether you see this as an honest portrayal of emotional complexity or obnoxious hyperbole will go a long way toward deciding whether you like these books or not. I tended to like the characters and see their vices as enriching details, but I can’t really begrudge critics who see things the other way. There are a couple of female characters in particular (especially a third generation Martian-born woman named Jackie) who are extremely unlikable and use sexuality as a weapon to manipulate and control men. At times, Robinson’s obsession with female sexuality gets tiresome, though I should note that we get many smart, talented, and powerful female characters in these books. At the least, Robinson does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with infidelity. Nonetheless, I have complained since the first review on this blog that character is often the element most ignored in sf – love them or hate them, I don’t think you can argue that Robinson doesn’t spend time trying to develop the central characters in this trilogy.

I wouldn’t say this is better than Red Mars, and it’s interesting that Nebula and Hugo flip-flopped on this one. Moving Mars is the next novel on the agenda (in one week), so we’ll see if the SFWA made the right choice…

Grade: A-

Thursday, February 10, 2011

1993 Arthur C. Clarke – HE, SHE, AND IT by Marge Piercy

I’m surprised by how little I get to talk about robots on this blog.

This novel, like the first winner of the Clarke award, The Handmaid’s Tale, generally fell under most people’s “literary fiction” rubric – which meant that the other science fiction prizes ignored it. Regardless of both this fact and Piercy’s own efforts to distinguish herself from the genre, it does exemplify some of the trends of the era while making some classic sf observations.

The novel takes place in 2059. Global warming and pollution have ravaged the Earth (it’s like we’re back in the 70s!) making most of the planet’s surface unlivable. Corporations control a few domed livable spaces, there are a few utopian “free towns” with their own domes and socio-political structures, and then there are dystopian hellholes of rampant poverty like “the glop” that sprawls over most of the East Coast of North America. The central character, Shira Shipman, resigns from one of the corporate domes after a nasty divorce and retires to her home of Tivka, an idyllic little Jewish free-town in what was once Massachusetts. Once there, she learns that her grandmother Malkah has become involved in a project to construct a powerful and detailed humanoid robot (called a “cyborg” in the novel) known as Yod. Unfortunately, the creation of so humanoid a cyborg is illegal, and it also draws the interest of corporate saboteurs from Shira’s former employers. When Yod develops romantic feelings for Shira, things get even more complicated.

It’s a very nice character piece that creates a very rich environment for Shira. She has troubled or complicated relationships with her mother, ex-husband, ex-lover, her ex-lover’s father, her mother’s lover, and her son, and all of these come into play in interesting and believable ways as the novel goes on. Piercy gives us intermittent chapters narrated by Malkah that tell the story of a golem in Prague circa 1600 AD, and this story is a nice contretemps to Yod’s while being quite good in itself. The emotional world of the novel feels very real. I would say there’s a bit of romance wish-fulfillment in Yod – a strong, heroic, dependable, and devoted man who loves Shira and will always love her without wavering. Considering how often typically male fantasies have dominated sf, I don’t think I have any right to complain, especially since Piercy shows an acute awareness of this aspect of the novel.

It’s a good novel, but I’m not sure it’s as good a science fiction novel. I’m not trying to draw arbitrary genre lines here, but I do think the novel is good at examining its characters and not nearly as good at examining sf concepts. The people have texture and complexity; the ideas not as much. While the rapid environmental deterioration seems exaggerated and Piercy avoids the technological details of the simulated computer environments into which characters can readily slip, all of these aspects of the world are still richly realized. Honestly, I’d rather avoid the Stephenson-style explanation of virtual environments if it’s not a major plot point. But, I’m still left with the question of what this dystopian world does other than provide convenient challenges for the characters.

A larger problem in the same vain is with Yod himself. The question of whether a sentient robot has rights is one of the sf classics, from Capek’s invention of the concept to Asimov's stories in the 1940s to Star Trek’s Data in the years just before this novel came out. This novel doesn’t add to this debate – Piercy’s position seems to be “of course Yod is sentient because I say so and any of my characters who question his rights are stupid jerks.” That’s fine, I guess. She’s not doing a remake of an Asimov story; she’s telling Shira’s story. Still, I expected Piercy to have more to say about gender, especially considering the title. This is considered a work of feminist science fiction, but other than early depictions of the corporate world’s dismissal of Shira’s talents and rights as a mother, it’s much more about the politics of sex. There’s a lot of discussion of who’s had sex with whom and why, but not much of an examination of what that all means in this speculative world. There are even some references to Yod’s feminine aspects that seem somewhat reductive – being sensitive and wanting to be held are feminine aspects attributed to Malkah’s programming while we can blame Yod’s propensity for callous violence on his male builder, Avram. There’s not much discussion of how these roles are culturally constructed or how Yod’s existence changes our understanding of them.

In summation, it’s a strong tale with some of the finest character work you’ll find in sf, and I would recommend it. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that it could have been so much more.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

1993 Locus Fantasy and WFA – LAST CALL by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is pretty well-known in the sf community, but it still surprises me that his name isn’t even more widely circulated. Two of the hottest sub-genres of speculative fiction these days are steampunk and urban fantasy. Powers’ 1983 novel The Anubis Gates is considered a foundational text of the former, and this novel should probably be considered a foundational text of the latter.

The novel mixes the mythic history of the rapid growth of Las Vegas, which is closely tied to Bugsy Siegel and the mafia, with the superstitions of chronic gamblers and playing cards’ roots as tarot cards. In Powers' world, luck and probability can be manipulated under the right conditions, and enacting certain rituals can elevate some players and destroy others. In the late 1940s Scott Crane’s father enters a contest to take the metaphysical position of “king” of Las Vegas from Bugsy and chooses to sacrifice his sons. Scott escapes and a wily cardshark named Ozzie adopts him. In 1969, Scott loses his soul in a magical card game with a tarot deck. In the present, this debt has come due, but a desperate cancer patient named Archimedes Mavroanos seeks Scott out when he learns that probability seems to bend around him. The two go on a quest to Vegas to save Scott’s soul. And a whole bunch of other stuff happens.

The first hundred pages of this novel were really irresistible. Powers uses the simple yet propelling prose of noir fiction while also creating the sense of a rich and complex magical world with its own rules just beneath the surface. That sense of a secret world is the essence of urban fantasy, and I haven’t seen anyone but Neil Gaiman do it better than Powers does here.

The great momentum of the opening chapters does fade, however, as Powers’ plot gets increasingly complex and more and more characters join the fray. My plot synopsis didn’t even touch Scott’s adopted sister and her family, Scott’s zombified brother, Scott’s dead wife, the hapless assassin, various fortune-tellers, or the boy raised in a giant Skinner-box to be the greatest gambler ever. These are all great ideas, but they also get in the way of the plot, and the novel really loses its momentum in the second half. And, it all comes together just a little too neatly in the end. It’s a very fun book that creates a compelling world of magic within our own, but a slimmer, more efficient version could have been truly great. Still, Last Call is nearly so.

Grade: B

Monday, February 7, 2011

1993 Nebula and 1992 BSFA – RED MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson

Many fans and critics hailed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian trilogy as a modern sf masterpiece in the 1990s. You don’t hear as much about the books these days, it seems, but this novel, at least, does an excellent job at straddling the worlds of hard science and humanities, as I think the best science fiction always should. It was beat in the Hugos by two very good novels - I think 1993 might have been the strongest class of Hugo nominees ever – but it certainly left a mark on the sf of the era.

The novel follows a joint US-Russian effort to colonize Mars in the year 2026. Two decades later, this looks like a bad bit of futurism from the get-go: we probably won’t be getting to Mars in fifteen years, let alone colonizing it, and the Russians would be a lot less likely to be equal participants with the US than, say, the Chinese or the EU. It is important to remember that Robinson was writing in the wake of the Cold War. Beyond those issues, the novel is extremely well-researched and thought out. One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in Robinson’s mastery of details, as he concocts systems and scenarios for crew selection, psychological evaluation, the journey itself, early settlement-building, and terraforming. Robinson has a solid grasp on several fields of science and on human history, and he uses them all to create a convincing world here.

It is this thorough knowledge of history’s workings that has always most impressed me about Robinson. He’s able to weave in interesting multicultural details (we get some brilliant scenarios like whirling dervishes caravanning through Martian deserts), while also depicting the broader sweep of history. Robinson convincingly portrays Mars as a frontier with demonstrable economic and psychological consequences in the context of a Malthusian Earth.

In this volume, Robinson presents the original group of colonists, one-hundred in total, with special focus on a select few – American hero John Boone, and the less-heroic American leader Frank Chalmers; the emotional Russian leader Maya Toitovna, and her more-stable counterpart Nadia Chernyshevski; the mysterious biologist Hiroki Ai; and much of the novel’s politics center around the pro-terraforming “green” Sax Russell, and the “red” Ann Clayborne who wants to preserve the pre-human Martian environment. Through them, Robinson presents a very fascinating question in a balanced and challenging way. I’m still not sure what side I fall on. Robinson also gets to question contemporary politics and economics through the radical Arkady Bogdanov, who pushes for the Martian colonists to found a new type of society, outside the limitations of the capitalist/communist spectrum.

Thousands of immigrants, representing a broad array of Earth cultures, follow the First Hundred. Political tensions and radical ideas lead to a rather spectacular revolution that turns the work into a more sophisticated version of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Much of the drama comes from the characters’ debates about Mars’ destiny, but also from their petty personal clashes, especially a rivalry between Boone and Chalmers that recalls the central love triangle/political debate in Pacific Edge. As in that novel, I can understand how these characters might annoy some readers, but it also feels very real to me, especially among the competitive egos of academia (where I have spent some time). Yes, really smart people are often socially awkward and competitive to the point of pettiness. The violent clashes that eventually result from these rivalries may push the drama too far, but, again, they are certainly not beyond the realm of plausibility.

Robinson does much to recognize science fiction history as well, naming cities and installations after Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Charles Sheffield, and Arthur C. Clarke, among others. If politics and literary allusion bore you, there’s a lot of cutting edge science concerning space travel and colonization, Martian geology, biology, and terraforming. There are Martian blimps and space elevators.

The writing is first rate as well – Robinson is one of those rare authors who can totally engross a reader (or, at least, this reader) with his depictions of landscapes, characters and technologies. I think Robinson is very much the heir to Clarke, though he tends to focus more on character development. That said, Robinson writes a lot of poetry and (sometimes awkwardly) inserts it into his novels - It’s not his strongest suit. He avoids doing this explicitly here, though there are some lyrical prose passages that don’t entirely work, especially in the italicized chapter introductions.

Red Mars is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read – it’s an epic work that delivers everything I’m looking for in a piece of sf. I read this novel in college, but I never actually got around to reading the two sequels, and I’m anxious to see if they follow the usual trend of diminishing returns in sf series.

Grade: A

Friday, February 4, 2011

1993 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, “The Inner Light”

No Hugos for Star Trek for over two decades, and then two in three years (and a Saturn). Yep, the early nineties is a real Renaissance for the Trek franchise, and The Next Generation is at the heart of it.

The Next Generation picks up about a century after the original series (so, it should’ve been called “Star Trek: Four or Five Generations Later”) and follows a new Enterprise (version “D”) with a more rationalist and diplomatic Captain than Kirk named Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). There’s also a robot, an empath, a blind engineer, and a Klingon security officer. It’s a nice cast of characters, and it’s much more of an ensemble series than the original. Or, most of the time. Patrick Stewart is the star of the show, however, and he can usually act circles around everyone else on set. As a result, the series really hinges on Picard.
In fact, I’d say the first two seasons suffer by not highlighting Stewart enough. The Hugo voters nominated the pilot and then promptly ignored the show for four years. It’s not too surprising considering the show’s obvious growing pains. This episode, from near the end of the series’ fifth season, is all about Patrick Stewart. Beware, I’m going to spoil this one, though I think it’s fairly obvious where it’s all going.

The Enterprise investigates a strange probe, which promptly puts Picard into a coma. He awakes on an alien world, where everyone insists that he is a man named Kamin, and that he is married. At first, he resists their claims and tries to figure out how to get back to his ship, but years pass, and he settles down. He starts a family with his wife, teaches his daughter science, becomes an upstanding member of the community, and learns to play the flute. He becomes an old man, and his astronomical observations lead him to realize that their planet is dying. Then he wakes up and discovers that whole life had been implanted in his mind as a monument to a dead civilization. What was decades of life for him was mere minutes for the rest of Enterprise crew.

It’s a great science fiction concept that creates a really touching scenario. It’s a quiet episode with no action sequences or alien baddies (take that Abrams!). It’s just scenes from a random guy’s life, but it’s about family, loss, and mortality, and it’s entirely carried by Stewart’s performance, which is amazing. In my opinion, this is Star Trek’s finest hour.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

1993 Hugo (tie) – A FIRE UPON THE DEEP by Vernor Vinge

I have to say that this tie makes a lot more sense to me than the previous Hugo tie (the legendary Dune and the not-so-legendary Call Me Conrad). In 1993 we have two very different books that are both well-written explorations of classic sf themes. Both have entered the sf canon and influenced subsequent works. Willis gave us medieval human suffering via time travel. Vinge gives us similar levels of human suffering via singularity-ridden space opera.

Ah, yes, the “singularity.” I mentioned it briefly in my 2010 Hugo reviews, and I’ll probably be talking about it a lot more often from here on, in part because of the influence of Vinge. Basically, you mix together Moore’s Law and Clarke’s Laws, extrapolate a bit, and you get the idea that technology will eventually accelerate off the charts.

A Fire Upon the Deep takes place in the distant future. The Milky Way galaxy can be divided into “Zones of Thought.” Near the core are the “Unthinking Depths” where technology doesn’t work, but higher and higher technology exists the farther you get from the core. At the edge, you have “the Beyond” where post-singularity higher beings romp around. The middle “Slow Zone” allows species like humans to evolve and develop technology protected from rampaging, post-singularity “Powers.” At the beginning of the novel, a group of humans at a research base called Straumli Realm accidentally awake a particularly malevolent Power called the Blight. A small group of researchers, mostly children, escape to the medieval Tines’ World. A pair of humans, Ravna Bergsndot and the ancient, formerly dead Pham Nuwen, journey to rescue the children and try to find ammunition against the rampaging Blight.

A lot of attention is given to the Tines themselves. They’re dog-like quadrupeds, and individually, they’re basically animals. But they can communicate telepathically (or subvocally) and form small hive minds that are intelligent. This set-up allows Vinge to create a very interesting culture, especially with their technological limitations.

Big Ideas abound, and they are, on the whole, pretty darn cool. The book is not as strong on character, pacing or prose though. I didn’t care about Ravna, Pham, or the kids (and the use of the latter seemed a bit manipulative), though there were a few Tines I liked. The middle of the book drags as we get extended, and repetitive, scenes, involving a starship chase and Tine politics. The writing is fairly pedestrian; it gets the job done, but that's about it.

An even bigger problem is accessibility. When I mentioned this whole Hugo project to my local sf bookstore owner, he responded “that’s good; those books all talk to each other.” By this point, reading a book like A Fire Upon the Deep really does feel like coming into the middle of a conversation, picking up where Brin’s Uplift books left off, in this case. My fellow Hugo-reviewer Josh Wimmer started out his project asking if science fiction deserves its ghetto…this novel might suggest that it does. I really, really enjoyed Vinge’s novel, and I especially love the ideas, but can I really consider a novel great if I can’t recommend it to a non-sf-reading friend? That’s an intriguing question to me, and I’m interested to see how this problem develops throughout the ‘90s and if it explains the Hugos’ abandonment of traditional sf in the ‘00s…

Grade: A-