Zones of Thought

September 8th, 2004 Comments Off on Zones of Thought

A few days ago, I finished reading Vernor Vinge’s two novels set in the Zones of Thought Universe, namely: A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep. I’m still completely overwhelmed by breadth of imagination displayed in both books.

Vinge is probably best known for his essay The Technological Singularity in which he argues that the growth in technology will lead to a singularity point where the growth has accelerated beyond the ability of humans to understand it. The concept is becoming a staple of modern science fiction with a new generation of writers repeatedly exploring such post-human scenarios in their novels — Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross being two notable examples. The novels take place in a universe where Transcendence — that is, the passage of persons, intelligences, or civilizations through the Singularity — is a common event. Since nothing beyond the Singularity can be understood by normal intelligence, Vinge splits his universe in Zones of Thought, limiting the places where Transcendence can be reached, which enabled him to write a space opera in such a universe.

A Deepness in the Sky, although it was written later, is in fact a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, taking place tens of thousands of years before the events in the latter novel. It doesn’t actually mentions the Zones of Thought, but the settings are shared, including a single character.

Both novels are exceptional, and I regret the fact that I had not read them before. Vinge’s style is a bit dry and unpolished sometimes in the first book, but he can surely create a believable story, including well-thought characters, alien civilizations and physics. The fact that the both novels won both the Hugo and Nebula Award are proof enough of that.

A Deepness in the Sky takes place entirely in the Slow Zone, near to Earth, where no faster-than-light travel or communication is possible. Two human groups, the Qeng Ho and the Emergents, set out to establish relations with an intelligent alien species on a planet orbiting a strange star — OnOff — which spends 200 years out of each 250 dormant. While the star is inactive, the inhabitants of the planet, called Spiders because of their spider-like appearance, go into hibernation. The Qeng Ho, a trading group, is ambushed by the Emergents, a group intent of enslaving the civilizations they conquer, a little time after they arrive on star system, and both fleets are crippled as a result of the battle, being forced into a uneasy cooperation while they wait the Spiders grow into a technological civilization able to repair their ships, after the star’s Relight.

The book has much more than that, of course, and the surprises are delightful and varied. Vinge waves an impressive tale dealing with three different mindsets, those of the two human groups and that of the spiders. All technologies described in the book, ranging from mesh networking to mind control and cryogenics, are explored in terms of their social effects, existing not just for their purpose on the plot but also to challenge the reader to imagine how they would impact the lives of people exposed to them. Vinge also discusses how a culture based on ships that go no faster than one third of the speed of light and where travel time is measured in centuries would work, exploring concepts like interstellar networks and social behavior in the midst of travel.

A Deepness in the Sky pays homage to many of the past masters of science fiction, with lots of references that fans will recognize and cherish. The characters are memorable, vivid and unique, and readers will be hard pressed to choose those who make a more lasting impression on them — all alike are interesting. Since the book was written considerably later in Vinge’s writing career, it’s also much more polished and well written.

A Fire Upon the Deep, on the other hand, takes place in the far future, where human civilization has spread away from the Slow Zone into the Beyond, where faster-than-light travel and communication are possible and millions of civilizations share the Galaxy. The Beyond comprises most of the Galaxy, standing between the Slow Zone and the Transcend, where the Powers, as Transcendent entities are called, live. Many civilizations aspire to achieve the Singularity so trips to the Transcend are common in search of recipes (programs) that will trigger it. In one of those trips, a human group unwittingly releases a malevolent Power that destroys the human colony and resumes its long stopped objective of ruling the universe. A small part of the humans escape with a countermeasure and crash on a planet inhabited by another of Vernor Vinge’s memorable alien species, unbeknownst to the rest of the Galaxy but a few. A race starts between the malevolent Power and another group of humans warned by a benign Power that was destroyed by the malevolent Power for the countermeasure that will decide the future of the universe, while medieval politics in the planet where the countermeasure crashed threaten to ruin it.

I actually liked A Deepness in the Sky better than A Fire Upon the Deep, although the latter is more epic, with a story that spans the whole Galaxy and dozens of civilizations, including the unforgettable Tines, which was one of the more fascinating alien races in science fiction history. The characters are engaging but the book is not as questioning of the effects of technology as its prequel. Nonetheless, it was as interesting as the other, both being page-turners. Vinge pays a terrific homage to the Usenet on it in the form of the Known Net, or Net of a Million Lies, a disjointed network comprising most of the known civilizations in the Beyond, whose most interesting feature are Usenet-like newsgroups, and a bandwidth matching the early days of the Internet.

On the whole, the two books were more than worthy the time I spent reading them, and I’m sure I’ll like to revisit the stories in a few years. Both are space operas in best tradition of past masters, and they look into a future that we can hardly imagine but that’s still truly human. To me, their appeal resides not into the complex interplay of external forces but mainly in the way they explore what’s inside each human being, the galaxies we have just begin to know within us, even in the midst of universe bigger than everything we can grasp.

In short, I recommend both books (to the probably few readers who have not read them yet). They are also best read in the order they were written, especially because of some indirect spoilers A Deepness in the Sky contains for A Fire Upon the Deep. I promise you it will be a time well spent.

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