About halfway through high school I finished reading my 87,000th crappy sci-fi or fantasy novel and decided that I’d had enough. From that point on I have avoided the genre entirely, except to read books that (a) have won an award, or (b) are personally recommended to me by friends with trustworthy judgment, or, preferably (c) both. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep fell into the former category — it won the Hugo Award in 1991 — but if you’d like that recommendation I’d be happy to provide it myself.
The novel is set in the far far future, and the events take place in a region called The Beyond. The galaxy, we are told, is divided into four distinct “Zones of Thought” like the areas on a bullseye: The Unthinking Depths are in the center, The Slow Zone is the next ring out, The Beyond falls on the fringes of the galaxy and surrounding everything is The Transcend. Each region has its own physical laws. So in The Slow Zone (where our own Earth resides), the “Nothing Faster Than the Speed of Light” limit reigns, but in The Beyond this prohibition is lifted. No one really knows what The Transcend is like because creatures who manage to get there become godlike Powers and generally stop giving a rat ass about mortals.
Our story begins with a ship’s crash landing, stranding two human children on a planet inhabited by sentient wolves. Each individual wolf is not very intelligent alone, but they all possesses the ability to “hear” the thoughts of other wolves in about a 10 meter radius. Groups of four to eight wolves, then, come together in packs to become a “person,” with a group mind and a single identity. These “people,” called Tines, can then use their four to eight mouths in collaboration — all controlled by the group mind — to manipulate their environment as skillfully as humans can with their hands. One disadvantage of the tines, though, is that they are unable to come within 10 meters of one another without their thoughts intermingling — an occurrence which could result in confusion or even loss of identity, The tines are wonderfully well thought-out and described by Vinge, although their unique sense of personhood does lead to some bizarre sentence constructions. (E.g. “Afraid of the noise, he sent some of him to peer over the ridge while other parts of him cowered on the ground.”)
The rest of the book is pure space opera: a malicious, virus-like Power called The Blight is quickly taking over the galaxy, enslaving trillions of beings and killing all those that stand in its way. There may be a “Countermeasure” to defeat The Blight, but nobody knows for certain; and this Countermeasure, if it exists at all, is on the ship that crashed into Tines World. A small band of people (two humans, two tropical plant-based aliens) set off to rescue the children and find The Countermeasure, but soon find themselves pursued by an entire fleet of The Blight’s minions.
Any one of these ideas — the group-mind Tines, the Zones of Thought, The Blight — would have been enough to build a novel around; the fact that Vinge threw them all into the same 600-page work shows that this is a guy with creativity to spare. The writing isn’t the best I’ve read, but the scope of the story and the striking originality of the concepts make is clear why this one snagged Science Fiction’s highest award.