Every now and then, I get drawn into a “classic” of the SF genre, and get roundly disappointed. This is one of those times.
In SF, there are TONS of people who read nothing else, it seems, and a goodly chunk of the SF world seems to value very different things than I do when it comes to literature.
I want decently drawn characters, prose that doesn’t clang, an author who understands that telling is not showing, and a story that moves along without getting bogged down in side issues.
In SF, it seems like all these things are subordinate to the cleverness of the idea or ideas the author includes in the yarn. Now, SF is very different from conventional stories because of this fantastic element, but I’ll go ahead and say out loud that the fantastic element isn’t enough to stand on its own, and authors depend on them at their peril.
Of course, as established above, I appear to be alone in this, because A Fire Upon The Deep is widely heralded as a brilliant book. It won the Hugo in 1993, even. So there’s that.
The story here is really pretty thin, and depends entirely on you being sufficiently entertained by a few plot coupons:
- The far, far, far future setting, wherein humans are just one race of thousands, including machine intelligences and “post-singularity” races.
- The whole idea of the “Zones of Thought” in the galaxy, which underpins a series of books starting here. Vinge’s notion is that the galaxy is comprised of concentric zones, and these zones control physical laws at a very basic level. Very close to the galactic core, intelligence is impossible, and travel doubly so. Outside that is the Slow Zone, which is where Earth is, and where the physical laws we know prevail. The next layer is the “Beyond,” where standard SF tropes like faster-than-light travel and communication are possible. And, of course, there’s zones beyond that.
- That the galaxy can contain many types of intelligences, and that they may be very different from us. This in and of itself isn’t new, but two of Vinge’s examples are genuinely novel: the Skroderiders, and in particular the Tines.
The Tines are neat, I must admit: the race is made up of smallish fairly intelligent doglike quadrupeds, but there within the race individual animals are not considered entities. Instead, small packs — 3 to 8 — combine to become intelligent, named individuals. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach, and to the various sizes of packs. Vinge has given lots of thought to this, which is to his credit, but he did so at the expense of telling an interesting story.
I’ve seen this happen in workshop stories. People fall in love with a plot idea or trope or sequence, and can’t let it go so they beat the horse to death. Vinge does this constantly. The book drags and drags as he explains in painful detail about how a pack race would work, or how a synthetic human feels, or how the Zones affect commerce and history. The issue here isn’t JUST too much backstory (though that’s part of it); the bigger sin is that he just TELLS us these things instead of working their implications into the story organically.
Compare Iain Banks’ Culture stories, for example. Banks has created world no less foreign and amazing than the Zones galaxy, but he’s a deft enough writer that you never feel like you’re getting a braindump from Basil Exposition. I’ve left Banks behind for other reasons, but whatever else turned me off about his books at least the man understood how to construct a good story that also included amazing and fantastic elements.