The Zones of Thought series
by Vernor Vinge
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 28, 2019
Addendum and edits on October 23, 2019
1. A Fire Upon the Deep / 2. A Deepness in the Sky / The Children of the Sky
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This was my first time reading Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, which tied with Connie Willis' Doomsday Book for the Hugo in 1993. It was also a finalist for Nebula, Locus, and John W. Campbell Memorial awards. I was originally thinking I had not read it before due to the time frame, when I was working long hours and not reading much. The three other finalists I have read from that year I'm pretty sure came later for me. It may have been a review that dissuaded me from reading it then, hard to remember twenty-seven years later. I've rated it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, which is slightly below its current average of 4.14, but I feel a re-read might boost that score a bit. It is long, complex, and a bit confusing. To say it is a galaxy-spanning space opera is a major understatement. Approximately 20,000 light years are traversed by various ships throughout the narrative. This is one of the few times I've sought out other reviews and analysis before writing my own. I've titled this page "Zones of Thought" because I intend to follow up with the two other books in the sequence, one a prequel, the other a direct sequel to Fire. That series title applies on practically every site on the 'net you might search, except for fantasticfiction.com, which calls it the "Queng Ho" [sic] series. The Qeng Ho were space-faring traders in an area in the slow zone. If this hadn't taken me so long to read I had intended to finish the month with A Deepness in the Sky (also a Hugo winner), but it's even longer and I'm running out of time. The series title is the basis of most of my confusion. At times I was sure it referred to physical areas of space, at others maybe different spatial dimensions. The different zones not only isolate varying degrees of sentient thought, but also seem to have different laws of physics. The following paragraph from a wikipedia article doesn't answer all of my questions.
"The novel is set in various locations in the Milky Way. The galaxy is divided into four concentric volumes called the "Zones of Thought"; it is not clear to the novel's characters whether this is a natural phenomenon or an artificially-produced one, but it seems to roughly correspond with galactic-scale stellar density and a Beyond region is mentioned in the Sculptor Galaxy as well. The Zones reflect fundamental differences in basic physical laws, and one of the main consequences is their effect on intelligence, both biological and artificial. Artificial intelligence and automation is most directly affected, in that advanced hardware and software from the Beyond or the Transcend will work less and less well as a ship "descends" towards the Unthinking Depths. But even biological intelligence is affected to a lesser degree."
Another part of the confusion is that "Old Earth" is said to be in the Slow Zone, but the Slow Zone is said to be closer to the galactic core than the High, Middle, and Low Beyond, and the Transcend is further out (or higher) than either of those. But Earth is closer to the galactic rim than it is to the core. Maybe the higher zones are above the galactic plane? Supposedly FTL travel is not possible in the Slow Zone, but it is in the Beyond. You could perform an FTL jump into the Slow Zone, but not out of it, the journey out would only be possible at slower than light speed. The Transcend is home to species and entities that have reached a technological singularity, and become a "Power." Some Powers are above the need to interact with other species, while some do influence others for various reasons. I decided not to worry too much about this confusion, concentrating on the characters and action instead. I found it easier once I began thinking of the Zones somewhat like Poul Anderson presented in his early novel Brain Wave.
Even though Earth is mentioned it is not the setting for any of the action. It's not even clear if it still exists, at least as a home for humanity. Other systems in other zones have been settled, with humans interacting with a myriad of other species. Some of those species have probably never had contact with humans, might not even be aware of us. Then a scientific expedition from Straumli Realm inadvertently releases what is believed to be a previously defeated Power, which leads to what is referred to as the Straumli Perversion, and later the Blight. When that happens, other species brand humans as the enemy, an infected species that endangers everyone else. A couple of the human scientists, man and wife, along with their two children, are able to escape the Power, but crash land on a planet in the Slow Zone. Inhabitants of that planet attack them, the adults are killed, and the children, one injured, are captured by opposing forces. These aliens, later dubbed the Tines, are a pack species, with multiple components acting in symbiosis. They are often described as dog-like, but Johanna, the older sister survivor first thinks of them as snake-like due to their long, serpentine necks. She calls them Tines because of their claws, which are also augmented with metalic weapons. The Tines' culture resembles our medieval period, castles or other fortified strongholds housing a King or Queen, with worker serfs and soldiers. The packs work together to accomplish tasks, have a psychic connection, and are virtually incapacitated if separated from the rest of the pack. If one component dies it is possible another can be incorporated into the group, or another can be birthed as a replacement. If too many components die that pack ceases to exist, the remaining ones usually driven into depression or suicide. Their psychic connection binds them together, but the "thought sounds" of other packs interfere, so packs tend to keep their distance from each other. The life-span of a pack is determined by the combined years that any of the components have lived. The group that captures Johanna is led by Woodcarver, over 600 years old. Johanna's brother Jefri is held by Steel, not as old, but created through inbreeding by the previous leader, Flenser, whom is reduced to only two of its original components.
Johanna believes Jefri is dead, Jefri believes the same about her. Both Woodcarver and Steel know differently, but keep that information from their repspective captive. Each group of Tines is using the humans as conduits to higher technologies, which they hope will serve their cause against their rival, and Steel even has more grandiose plans, thinking he can carry his empire to the stars. Several other humans, along with different species, all from different zones, are drawn into the conflict. It is believed that Johanna and Jefri's parents were able to escape with some device or information that could be used against the Blight, so a race is on to find their ship. While all of this is going on, information is shared between systems and zones via the Known Net, even though many consider it to be the "Net of a Million Lies." Sort of like our own internet I guess, or at least the usenet that preceded it. Aside from the confusion, I can also criticize the book's length. There's a lot of repetitive action, events are stretched out over a year's time, but I felt a lot could have been streamlined without harming the plot. Ships in the Beyond can perform multiple FTL jumps per second, coverning multiple light years per jump, but there were delays and detours along the route that prolonged that section. Another complaint derives from the confusion about how the Slow Zone restricted cognitive functions. Both Johanna and Jefri should have been hampered in their ability to transfer information to the Tines, she from a "dataset" (like a computer tablet), he from the devices in their ship which Steel has confiscated. Both Woodcarver and Steel, along with some of their assistants, exhibit higher levels of intelligence and comprehension skills than would be assumed based on previous descriptions of the Slow Zone. Perhaps it is their pack mentality that enables that, an evolutionary boost to counteract the effects of the zone. Don't interpret any of my confusion or criticisms as an indication I didn't like it. Those are minor distractions from the overall scope of the story. It involves courage and strength of will, cooperation toward a common goal, along with rivalries and suspicions between the various factions. It's SF on a grand scale, a broadening of perspective on our place in the cosmos, an examination of where we've been and where we might go in the future, and possibly how cooperating with other lifeforms we may encounter will benefit both us and them. I wish I had time to re-read it right away, but that will have to wait. I'll be lucky to get to the prequel next month, considering how many ARCs I have waiting. Stay tuned.
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A Deepness in the Sky won multiple awards; Hugo, John W. Campbell Memorial, Prometheus, Italia, and Kurd La▀witz Preis. It was also a finalist for Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and Seiun awards. It is a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, set approximately 20,000 years earlier, all of its action confined within the Qeng Ho region of space, and there is only the merest of hints of the possibility of the other "zones" featured in the earlier novel. As with the first book, this one took me longer to read than it should have. One factor was my hardcover copy, a first edition purchased used years later, has very small print, at least for my tired old eyes. The strain was too much to read for any length of time, so I took frequent breaks, alternating with stories in an upcoming collection I have on Kindle, on which I can increase the font size for easier reading. Another thing that frustrated me is that the book is long, but it covered so much plot it could have (should have) been much longer. There are three distinct narrative tracks, two of which interested me more than the one that featured the higher word count. So much plot, yet also a lot was skipped over. If each segment had been more fully explored it could have been a trilogy.
The Qeng Ho are a group of human space-faring traders. There are other groups, either space-faring or confined to one settled star system. Pham Nuwen began life on one of the isolated worlds, son of royalty, but was traded to a Qeng Ho expedition for an unknown reason. He is taken under the wing of the trader Sura, who educates him on their mission and purpose. She takes frequent breaks during their voyages, hibernating in cold sleep, which Pham resists, aging normally, eventually matching her in age. They become lovers and have many children, and she has children with others, considering all of them part of their extended family. Medical science had advanced considerably, extending life expectancies to an average of about 300 years, with some able to make it several hundred years beyond that. Cold sleep also allowed a person to pass the long space journeys in a subjectively short period of time. Pham does take advantage of that on subsequent voyages to other systems, while Sura chose to remain on her home planet. Pham wanted to extend the reach of the Qeng Ho, to become more of a governing body, an empire, instead of just traders, but Sura objected to that. All of this is told in various flashbacks. The main action begins with Pham now much older, when a former colleague recruits him for a new expedition, a voyage to what has become known as the On-Off star. Its description made me think of a pulsar, but it has a very long periodicity, a hundred years or more between its bright and dark phases.
There is another human expedition to the star as well, the Emergents. The Qeng Ho arrive just shortly before them, reluctantly entering into a partnership with the Emergents to explore the system, which contains just one major planet. The third narrative track is on the planet, dubbed Arachna by the humans, due to its spider-like inhabitants. That was my favorite section, even though I could criticize its anthropomorphic depiction of the Spiders. I was wondering why the descriptions of their world, as well as their speech patterns, seemed too human-like. However, later revelations seem to indicate that narrative was shaped by human translators influenced by one of the Spider scientists. The Spiders had adjusted to their planet's harsh conditions, spending the long cold periods, the Dark, in deepnesses, which are either natural caverns or strongholds built specifically for the purpose. But the book's title does not refer to these, but rather Spider Sherkaner Underhill's thoughts about the deepness of the sky beyond the stars, and his belief that Spiders can only reach to the stars if they can learn to live through the Dark on the surface instead of in deepnesses. Another factor in the Spider's world is the conflict between the trads (traditionalists) and those who choose to defy convention. Tradition states all Spider children are born in the Waning Years, that period of the star approaching its Dark phase. It had happened before, but many others later join Sherkaner and his bride, Accord Intelligence General Victory Smith, in giving birth to children "out of phase," after the Relight of the star. Trads consider that a perversion.
I would like to read a further exploration of Pham Nuwen's life before the On-Off star expedition, his struggle to unite the many Qeng Ho trading families into one vast empire, as well as his conflicts with Sura who opposed that idea. What we get are just a few highlight moments. The same could be said of events on Arachna. Just when it was getting interesting there was either a time jump of multiple years, with just hints of how Sherkaner and Victory's offspring were maturing, or else it switched back to the orbiting human Qeng Ho/Emergent rivalries. It didn't help that for most of that time the Emergents were dominant, with their leaders despicable in their actions and intent. It was not until toward the end, when the tension of which faction would be the victor, who would survive and who would be lost, that the story became more compelling. Yet that climax was also extended through too many pages, too many chapters. It was continually frustrating to get close to a revelation only to cut away to action in another locale. I also rated this 4 stars on Goodreads, but in this case it would be closer to 3.5, and I doubt a re-read would boost that score. In fact, while I would like to re-read Fire someday, I'm not so inclined for this book. It had the potential to be great, if only more of his human characters had been more honorable, and if I could be more confident that the Spiders were as honorable as depicted. Of the others that were award finalists that year, I've only read two. I'd rate this slighty higher than one of them, but much lower than that year's Nebula winner, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Talents.
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