Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index


A novel by Vernor Vinge (1999, TOR Books)

A ruthless regime takes over a group of Traders as they approach an unusual world with a developing culture.



Read May 24th to June 8th, 2005  
    Well-written, with main characters who were given a lot of depth and auxiliary characters who were given just enough depth, a gritty SF futuristic feel, this book should have been great. Instead, the plot drags on and on, and although the characters are well drawn, they are uninteresting. I found myself waiting desperately for the end. In all fairness, the ending has just about the right payoff, but it doesn't make up for a middle full of... nothing.

The book, which is set thousands of years before A Fire Upon the Deep, and contains humans who have more primitive technology, still contains a very cool SF concept. In a style that I always enjoy, we are not told much in the way of backstory, or given any background on the technology. The author assumes that we are part of the same universe, and know what the technology is and does. That means we develop a sense for the technology as the book progresses, and since the author is pretty good at these things, he starts us off slowly, and builds up to more frequent usage.

The ships here have not developed the technology to travel faster than light, so they go into coldsleep for the long journeys between the stars. The Qeng Ho are traders, and their trading network spans a lot of space and a lot of time. The first sentence of the book indicates how standard that seems to the people of this era, in that the search for Pham Nuwen spanned 800 years. The unfortunate part of this book is that the author assumes every culture goes through the same stages to become a powerful spacefaring race. In the time the Qeng Ho travel from customer to customer, the civilization may have collapsed, because that is a standard trait of civilizations. Nothing lasts forever, and usually the civilizations rebound.

One such civilization are the Emergents, who had the help of the Qeng Ho radio network to rebuild their society. When the Qeng Ho plan an expedition to a nearby star, called the OnOff star because of its peculiarities, the Emergents arrive soon after. There ensues a battle in which a surprising number of people, including main characters up to that point, are killed, and the Emergents emerge victorious. However, there are not enough resources to allow them to get back home, or to safely conquer the society that is being built on the planet below.

Most of the book takes us through the years of waiting for the Spiders to become a true technological society, so that the fleets can be rebuilt and refurbished and the humans' exile ended. There are conspiracies that last years, many of which come to nothing until the last one to two hundred pages of the book (yes, it's that long). Ezr Vihn turns into one of the Qeng Ho leaders from a junior fleet member, waiting decades for revenge because the Emergents turned his beloved Trixia into a computer.

The Emergents have a special virus that they can control and turn many people into Focused, which turns them into a machine that is focused on a single job; they lose their ability to interact with others outside their field, which for Trixia is linguistics -specifically, the Spider language.

Another Qeng Ho crewmember is Qiwi Lin-Lisolet, who as a teenager becomes lover of the Emergents' ruthless leader Tomas Nau. She is able to get him to become more lenient, and relaxes his rule over the survivors, allowing them a little freedom and a little of the Qeng Ho business attitude to slip into their daily lives.

They setup a "temp", which is an inflatable structure at the stable orbital point between the Spider world and their star. Tomas Nau cleverly gets rid of conspirators by using his Focused security people to find them and by setting up massacres and disasters for them to trigger. And when all is peaceful, they wait, and wait, and wait. They observe the Spiders, who become very powerful emotional motivators.

Fortunately for the Qeng Ho and for the story itself, Pham Nuwen is on this mission, but nobody knows who he really is. He is able to maintain his cover for decades by doing nothing to alert the Emergents to his abilities. For he is the person who changed the Qeng Ho into the traders that they are in this era. As he daydreams sometimes, we get his backstory in detail. I would have actually rather read a novel about his days designing the Qeng Ho Empire than the story we got. I only became interested in the book when we were told about his exile from Canberra, his interest in space travel and the Qeng Ho, his developing affection for Sura Vihn, distant relative of Ezr Vihn, and his dreams of Empire. The grand Meeting that took a thousand years to plan and set into motion, the awesome display of his grand vision that the collapse of civilization provided him to show others, and his final betrayal were things that I absorbed more than the present of the story. I didn't figure out why Sura was so intent on not building an Empire; it didn't make sense to me, so I wonder if I missed a major point there in their discussions.

Pham sets about bringing down the Emergents by giving them some wondrous miniature technology called localizers. Intended for stability and tracking, they allowed the Emergent Focused (or zipheads) to keep track of everybody and everything within their domain. Pham, however, has a back door into the network, and can tamper with their control. When Ezr figures out who Pham is, they conspire in secret through the localizer network, and they learn many things that the Emergents are still keeping secret. When the time comes for the Emergents to destroy the Spider culture so that they can take over the planet, Pham and Ezr finally make a move towards sabotage. Along the way, Ezr convinces Pham to abandon his dreams of Empire, which would be facilitated by Focus, so Pham gains a new dream, that is to free all of the Focused. The turnaround is quite believable, and works out well in the end.

For their part, the Spiders were drawn too human-like for me, despite their non-human form. I realize by what is said near the end that we were supposed to be seeing them through the eyes of the human translators like Trixia, but their attitudes, their technology, and their development is decidedly human. Sherkaner, Victory and Hrunker were regular human beings, and their efforts in war, love and challenging their people's beliefs were fairly standard. I wasn't much interested, except as a diversion from the other boring plotlines. I wonder how Trixia got translations of Underhill's first trip to Lands Command, when that occurred two hundred years before they arrived at the OnOff star.

The twist to the ending is that Pham's sabotage kills more Spiders than it saves, because Sherkaner has been secretly communicating with the Focused translators. When the bombs start flying, Sherkaner meant to use the Focused to avert a real war. But Pham took the Focused off-line to try and avert the war. When he realized what the Spiders had planned, he reactivates their link, and Sherkaner takes over. Pham takes over the Qeng Ho, and Qiwi kills Tomas Nau. Ezr learns to let go of Trixia, who has become more a Spider than human now, and marries Qiwi. Pham and his new partner, his former Focused nemesis Ann Reynolt, take their crusade to free the Focused back to the Emergent homeworld. 

The only part of the book that I thought was poor plotting was the Exiles' belief (well-founded because of the dictates of the story) that the Spiders would be technologically ready to resupply them before the next Dark. As the Spiders typically went into hibernation during the two hundred year Dark cycle of their star, were the Exiles ready to wait out that long time span if it didn't work out? They were lucky that Sherkaner pushed so hard for atomic energy, which provided enough heat to allow underground cities to thrive through the time with no sun. Would our technology be able to do that, even if we became fully dependent on nuclear fuel? I doubt it, and I doubt further that we could do it in the thirty years of Brightness that the planet had. Still, these are Spiders... The Exiles even waited until after Dark set in to start their take-over. What if the atomic project didn't work, and they abandoned the cities for their Deepnesses?

Still, technology doesn't seem to be a problem for these people. Although they only have one heavy lifter left, and that was in dubious condition, how are they going to get the materials required to build new starships? Again, the technology is assumed, and nothing is a real problem, even decades digging through the diamond asteroids.

Maybe if the story was shorter, or if the characters actually had something interesting to do throughout most of the book, I would have enjoyed it better. As it was, though, this is a marginal book that I cannot recommend except to persistent readers.


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