I had high expectations for this book. It won the Hugo award for best novel, which is a big deal in the Sci-fi world. In retrospect, I can understand this distinction, but it did take me a while to appreciate why it may have won this honor. Most sci-fi books take a good 30-50 pages to establish the futuristic universe and time frame setting. This book took more like 150 pages to get there. The beginning was agonizing for me. If you’ve never read sci-fi before—don’t start with this book, it is more complex than most sci-fi and the casual reader will get fed-up with it. With that warning out of the way, once I got invested in this book, I did enjoy it.
The universe Vinge creates in Fire Upon the Deep has multiple layers of civilization and intelligence that depend on where you are located in the universe—a very interesting concept. The story begins as a human ship escapes from a terrible power to crash land on a planet inhabited by wolf-like creatures that must live in packs to transcend beyond the intelligence level of an animal. The larger the pack, the more intelligent the being—but a pack of 4 or 5 of these creatures is still considered one individual. In that sense, they can also be nearly immortal as they can add new members as previous ones die. A rescue mission ensues across the galaxy to help the stranded humans who may hold the keys to stopping the blight/power that is consuming the known universe.
I have really simplified the story here, but you get the idea. This is fringe—totally out there, which makes it both frustrating and enjoyable. With books like this, I find I have to let go of my need to understand everything in order to enjoy the story—there are some things in this made up world that will never make sense, never be explained and I’ll never understand them—once I made peace with that, I enjoyed the characters and the details of the story much more.