At last, an old-school space opera that blew me away and brought back my love of the genre. This definitely deserved its Hugo. A Fire Upon the Deep
has everything -- vast galactic civilizations, a threat to the very cosmos, space battles and starfaring adventurers, truly alien aliens, enough of a hook into the characters to make the story personal, and an epic, hopeful finale that still leaves some threats out there to be resolved. I haven't loved a space opera this much since David Brin's Uplift Wars
Vernor Vinge has created a galaxy in which the laws of physics actually differ by "zone" -- closest to the galactic core is the Slow Zone, where faster-than-light travel is impossible, and high technology and even intelligence itself is correspondingly limited. This is where Old Earth was located, once upon a time, before humans made their way out of the Slow Zone into the Lower Beyond, where computers becomes faster, civilizations become more sophisticated, and ships can begin to transcend lightspeed. High above is the Transcend, where only Powers dwell, superhuman intelligences that lower civilizations cannot even comprehend.
In this galaxy, human "archeologists" from the High Beyond venture into the Low Transcend and unleash something that is a danger to the Powers themselves, and soon to the entire galaxy.
The story alternates between what's going on out in the galaxy and what is going on on a primitive world in the Slow Zone occupied by a race of dog-like groupminds called the Tines. On the Tines' world, a ship carrying the survivors of the group that unleashed the threat in the Transcend crashes, and only a pair of children survive. On their ship is what might be the key to saving the galaxy.
Each half of the story was equally thrilling, as slowly the two threads came together. I really, really liked Vernor Vinge's portrayal of the alien Tines and the equally alien Riders; these are not furry/latex-masked humans, but aliens
, yet Vinge gave them distinct and understandable personalities. Some of the Tines are evil, some are extremely likeable, and you come to care about some of the alien characters as much as the humans.
This was such a great story and such great worldbuilding, I am definitely putting the "prequel" novel A Deepness in the sky
on my TBR list, and I can't wait until the sequel Vinge is writing (20 years later!) comes out later this year.
This book comes with my highest recommendation for any SF/space opera fan.