I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind's potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these "regions of thought," but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.
Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, not entirely composed of humans, must rescue the children-and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.
It seemed to me that this novel was an attempt by the author to have his cake and eat it too. In the world of science fiction and fantasy, an author generally chooses either a hard sci-fi technological setting or a medieval setting. A Fire Upon the Deep had both, and suffered a bit for it, at least for me, as I found the pacing uneven.
I really enjoyed the universe that Vinge created here—regions of space where things moved faster or slower, where artificial intelligence could be raised to the status of “Power,” which seems rather like godhood, and where many alien races compete and cooperate in economics and politics. But I found the back and forth between the high tech and medieval worlds to be jarring. While I looked forward to the space ship portions, I found the world of the Tines a bit tedious, with all its focus on planet level politics and warfare.
I found the Tines to be intriguing aliens, resembling dogs and causing humans to relate to them in somewhat the same way, and requiring 4-6 bodies to make up one personality. That was an ingenious way to make up for their lack of primate hands to do things—several sets of doggy lips and teeth could manipulate objects well enough, if no humans were in evidence. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and the Tines are at the top of the food chain in their world.
I do wonder about the author’s optimism concerning the human race. In this universe, humans have been traveling the stars for millions of years and are still recognizably human. I must say, I hope he’s right.
Book number 286 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.