Book Review: The Zones of Thought Series

Vernor Vinge (pronounced ‘winge’, though the double v sound is much more fun) is one of the old school of science fiction writers that knows science. He was a computer science professor at San Diego State University and is known for his theories on the Technological Singularity.

Not surprisingly, all three of his works that I read and recommend deal quite heavily with said Technological Singularity in one form or another, though not on Earth and not necessarily as a positive or negative thing. That’s hardly the only thing his Zones of Thought books are about, however, and they have some very different elements from most space operas I’ve read.

The Zones of Thought proper are the sort of fantastic device only a scientist would come up with, mostly because it means he can break the rules as he understands them because basically magic (magic, advanced technology; same thing). In this universe, the further out you get from the galactic core, the more advanced technology and intelligence can become. So the center of the galaxy is the Unthinking Depths and stupid. Earth is located in the Slow Zone, where faster-than-light travel is impossible. Next you have the Beyond, where FTL travel becomes possible and civilization is very advanced. Beyond even that is the Transcend, the realm of unintelligible, ascended beings and civilizations whose concerns no longer resemble ours. The boundaries of these different zones shift, which is important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that FTL travel may suddenly no longer possible. 

We’ll start with my favorite of the series, which is also the first chronologically. A Deepness in the Sky  was written second and serves as a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, though you have to pay close attention to how. It is set 20,000 years earlier, which should tell you exactly how much attention you might need to pay.

To sum up: the mercantile clans of the human Qeng Ho, led by their cunning old founder, set forth on an expedition for the OnOff Star, a scientific anomaly which does what it says on the tin. There they encounter a similar expedition from the totalitarian human Emergents, who use a peace summit to stab the Qeng Ho in the back and take control of the whole endeavor, damaging everyone’s ability to leave the system in the process. Meanwhile, a new cycle of the OnOff Star is just beginning, and the somewhat Edwardian civilization of the system, the aptly named Spiders, are striving to make their own technological breakthroughs led by a charmingly lunatic genius, his military officer wife, and their children. The plot takes place over centuries, though due to a lot of tech and biology, it involves the same people.

One of the core plot elements is the limitations of computer automation, as you might expect from a computer scientist.  There are a lot of ideas about the use of computer generally. I wouldn’t say this is hard sci-fi as often defined, but there are elements of it.

The Emergent civilization is horrific at its core, thought there are plenty of good people within it. Not their leader, he is one of the most horrible people ever. The Emergents combat the limitations of computers in a terrible way by essentially brainwashing people with specialized knowledge into single-minded appliances. The Qeng Ho are masters of computerized automations. They have also brought very many and varied specialists on this expedition. You can imagine how the Emergents make use of this.

Vinge writes aliens wonderfully, and the Spiders are no exception.  They have a very inhuman physiology, but they are very human in their society and even psychology. Before you even realize exactly what they physically are you will feel connected to them.

Deepness is the most morally complex of the Zones books thus far, in the sense that ‘life is complicated and doing the right thing is hard’, not in the sociopathic way the term is often used. Discipline, vengeance, love, heartbreak, betrayal, and one of the best forgiveness scenes I have ever seen play out. It is a really good space opera that still ends on a positive note after so much loss and danger.

A Fire Upon the Deep has a rather similar two-pronged plot, though I find it simpler. An archeological expedition on the borders of the Transcend has dug too greedily and too deep and unleashed a horror known as the Blight upon the cosmos.  Two parents take the only countermeasure, as well as the expedition’s children, off in a small vessel before the Blight escapes. This vessel lands on a medieval planet populated by the alien tines who kill the adults in fear and being to use their two children as a part of their politicking. Meanwhile, an entity from the Transcend contacts a young woman named Ravna in the upper reaches of the Beyond to help against the coming Blight.  It goes wrong, and Ravna along with the entity’s emissary (now containing fragments of its consciousness) race the Blight to the countermeasure.

The tines are one of the most standout things about this books. They are in many ways more inhuman than the Spiders. An individual is actually a pack of canine-like quadruped beings that operate in a group mind.  They regard humans as very strange and do not think in the same terms.  Individuals can live a very long time, replacing members as they die, though the nature of their members changes their personalities in both small ways and very large ones.

Other standout elements include a zero-g sex scene, which is mostly funny as it turns out that leverage is important. The plot’s twists are very well-executed. One thing everyone notes is the use of the Net (or “The Net of a Million Lies”). This is the way you really get to know the Blight, what it does, and what is going on in more civilized corners of the galaxy.

The Blight is terrifying. What it is exactly is unclear, but it does turn people into pod people. It reminds me of the Flood in Halo, though without the physical aspect. It consumes minds and civilizations, while cunningly contorts information to spread panic and search out the countermeasure.

The end sequence is beautiful and heartbreaking. It could use a sequel, as there are no few loose ends and rather big Chernobyl-type sarcophagus hanging out in space, but there was no need for one. I was surprised when The Children of the Sky turned up on Amazon.

The Children of the Sky deals with the now-awakened and adult human children on the tines world. It is a highly political book. A summary would not only be difficult but also makes very little sense without having read A Fire Upon the Deep.

It has some odd twists and I find it to be the weakest of the three Zones books, largely because it is not self-contained. Major problems are solved, other stagnant, but the really big ones are still not fixed. It does have one of the most terrible human villains I have ever read. I’m not sure you understand how horrible he is unless you are a woman.

The Zones of Thought books can be found on Amazon. I myself own all three digitally, which is good, because they are not short.  If you’re looking for more science-based space opera, these are great books. Deepness and A Fire remind me of a pleasant hearty wine, which might be because I drank such wine while reading them. Children goes in some interesting directions. I recommend these books if you’re looking for a good long read with some nice substance.

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