Details: (c) 1992 Vernor Vinge; Pub 1993 Tor (Tom Doherty Associates Inc); ISBN 0-812-51528-5
Verdict: A fire upon the deep is exciting and original despite its flaws.
Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man declared that it was time I read this, so ever obedient, I did so.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.
I found A fire upon the deep highly readable; I couldn't wait to get back to it and got really caught up in the story, to the extent that I was happy to overlook all the little things that would have annoyed me in a less exciting story. It's adventursome, it almost never drops the pace, and it uses its SF setting effectively to make the stakes almost unimaginably high, while at the same time keeping the focus on people that the reader can relate to and care about. I also liked the balance between the ultimate battle stuff and the little local war on the Tines' planet. It was very easy to suspend any kind of critical relationship to the story and just enjoy. And while the outcome is fairly predictable, it is reached by a delightfully twisty route. The ending is perhaps a little too pat, but that's pretty much expected for the genre.
I really like the 'Zones of thought' conceit behind the setting, the idea that the laws of both physics and information are different in different regions of the galaxy and the consequences of this both for the background and for the plot itself. Also, the sense that the galaxy is really, really huge and diverse is quite nicely maintained. I enjoyed the extremely imaginative alien races. There are plenty who are different from humans in non-clichéd ways, and mention of the existence of beings who are so different that no kind of interaction is possible. It's a little thing, but I like the way that translation issues are actually addressed, even if the solution is a rather handwavy 'very effective technology'. The setting lends originality even within the rather obvious theme of a quest for the magical object which can defeat evil.
The other thing that really heightens the excitement is that the characters are encouragingly mortal. People die without being earmarked by being excessively cute, excessivly heroic, or obviously expendable. Just characters that have played a role in a couple of scenes, who have some good points and some bad points. I approve of stories that don't cheat on this one.
AFutD is let down by weak characterization, over-explaining of characters' motives because they're not quite solid enough as people for them to be obvious, and teeth-grindingly awful dialogue. Things like introducing conflict in a previously peaceful scene with the line Not all was sweetness and light, however. The children are possibly even worse than the adults; they both act far younger than their supposed ages and nevertheless the adults keep telling them how surprisingly mature they are.
And I got thoroughly fed up with Ravna being such a bloody girl. To be honest, AFutD is rather transparently a boys' book; having a female protagonist who is vaguely competent within her field doesn't add anything to it, especially as she tends to deal with serious crises by bursting into tears and wishing for knights in shining armour. The whole 'As the token female character, it is my bounden duty to have passionate sex and fall madly in love with the first male and approximately human person I encounter' shtick is really not endearing, and it's bad enough when the children react to everything with wide-eyed comments about how it's all 'just like a storybook', but as a depiction of an adult and supposedly intelligent woman it made me want to throw things. I mean, really, mumblety thousand years in the future and we still haven't moved on from Lieutenant Uhura?
There were a couple of little things that niggled, too. The portrayal of a pan-galactic information exchange system as a giant Usenet is just incongruous. And along the same lines, nothing but the most primitive possible technology requires the use of a font specially designed for use on low-res screens, so there's no reason for a novel set in the far future to represent electronic communication as poorly readable. It also annoyed me that Johanna's Dataset seems to be conveniently oblivious to the Zones which are so critical for the rest of the plot.
Addendum 18.10.04: dubhain puts a very thoughtful counterargument to some of my criticisms over in bibliotheca