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…