||Intriguing ideas, and amazing aliens,
written in quite a consistent manner, this book showed a very different
galaxy than the one we've come to expect from most alien science fiction.
The map provided at the beginning of
the book helps a lot. This is a very different way of looking at
advanced species in a galaxy populated by millions of such civilizations.
Instead of wondering why advanced races have not visited the less
advanced, the author provides a solution: they cannot. The galaxy is
divided up into various zones, in which even artificial intelligence
cannot work at its center, the Deeps. Moving farther out, from the
Slowness to the Beyond, beings can get higher and
higher automation to work, until finally they leave the galaxy to
"transcend". Nobody knows where these zones come from, whether
they are a natural product, or if they were artificially created, which
might provide future stories...
I have to admit that I don't have a
feel for what a transcendent is, or does. The author indicates that
these races don't live long, or don't interact for long with others once
they've transcended, something that I thought needed more explanation.
However, given the characters in the book, none of which are
transcendent, I guess we don't have a point of view for that.
Where the beginning of the book
indicates that the whole galaxy will have to fight against the new Power
that is awakened, due to some carelessness by a human clan and a
malicious computer-like virus, the story is actually a character drama,
with very little plot action. For the most part, the characters are very
well driven, with a lot of effort going into creating their
The story takes place in three
locations, only one of which is external and knows what is going on in
the galaxy at large. Ravna watches as the Blight stretches across the
"Upper Beyond", an area where incredibly advanced machinery can work,
and one step removed from the Transcend. She watches in vein as it takes
over her workplace, in an archive named Relay, then her home star
cluster. Humanity will have to start over in creating a space colony of
That is what is nice about this book.
As the Blight progresses, thousands, even millions of civilizations are
affected, essentially wiped out. The author tells us this in the sweep
of a phrase, and the characters barely bat an eye, except for her own
system. Even a million civilizations is pretty inconsequential to this
book! What is really nice is that humanity is not exempted.
Ravna is accompanied by Pham Nuwen, and
two aliens, tree-like creatures called Blueshell and Greenstalk. I
really liked these aliens, as they were so alien, both in nature and in
communication. It gets even more interesting when they turn traitor, not
by their own fault, but because they were designed billions of years ago
to be programmable, by the Blight! As soon as I heard the legend about
the Skoderiders, I knew that it was true, and that the Blight was
responsible. It was a little too transparent, and I hoped I was wrong. I
wonder if David Brin's Traeki were inspired by these Skoderiders, as
they were essentially uplifted, and are very slow to keep new memories,
like the wax rings in Brightness Reef.
The most impressive aliens, however,
are the ones that the author really cares about, the Tines. Packs of
dog-like creatures that think as one being, separately they are nothing
more than lost souls. It was truly amazing to see them develop, to watch
their culture and the way they lived. This species is really an
important contribution to the way we think about aliens, because as far
as I know, they are without precedent. They really are hive minds, that
degenerate if they get close too the ones they are not bonded with or
too far from each other. To
have a human in their midst was also something spectacular to them.
Johanna and Jefri are the children of
some people trying to escape from the lab where the Blight was
inadvertently activated. They have with them something in their ship
that can stop the Blight, except that they land in the wrong part of the
planet, and are killed. Johanna is taken south to an enemy settlement,
while Jefri is interred with the ones who killed his parents. Both grow
to love their comrades, but for different reasons.
Jefri, only eight years old, grows for
a year with a pack of eight puppies, Amdi. They are an experiment in
pack breeding by the malicious Steel and Flenser. The politics are
extremely complex, but intriguing and presented in such a way, over such
a long period of time, that it is in no way confusing. That is the
advantage of such a long book. We get to see everything from Steel's
point of view, as well as Jefri's, and sometimes others. When Jefri
makes contact with Ravna, Steel plans to rule the galaxy!
I didn't understand why Ravna didn't
look for more than one side of the Tine's story. She knows that she has
to send help, and does so in the form of instructions on making cannons
and radios, but at what cost? She should not have made promises to an
8-year old when she doesn't understand the political atmosphere on the
planet. It was very short-sighted of Ravna, and it felt more like a move
on the part of the author, rather than her naiveté. This must not have
been the first First-Contact situation they've encountered.
As the book progressed, it became
increasingly obvious that Ravna was taking Jefri's word on everything.
It was such a relief when Pham finally brought up the possibility that
Steel is a bad guy. Since she had read so many romantic fantasies she
should have expected something like that. Since Pham lived through it,
he should have said something before the halfway point in the book. By
that time, they couldn't do any more than continue giving their
Johanna, with Woodcarver's tribe, was a
little more encouraging, as it was her dataset that provided the Tines
with their information, not her. They were much smarter than she
expected. I loved seeing her continued repulsion to Peregrine (why was
his name changed to Pilgrim about halfway through?) because he adopted
into himself one of the pack members that killed her father.
When they decide that they have to
rescue the spaceship, Woodcarver attacks Steel's realm, though it takes
a while for the battle to be engaged. I don't think there was a real
purpose to showing Scriber's death, as we could easily see that
Vendacious was working for Steel, right from the moment that he reported
to Johanna that her brother was dead. The attack on Johanna was really
well done, though. However, I thought the aftermath, with Vendacious taking her alone and
promising to torture her, but with a last-minute rescue by Peregrine,
was a little too simplistic.
As I mentioned, this is a character
novel. The characters were excellently written and depicted, and served
to show us all about the races were encountered. In this way, the author
didn't have to stop the story, even a little, to give us explanations.
The Tines, obviously the race that the author wanted to showcase, were
developed the most. The Skoderiders were next, and the humans less so.
The humans didn't seem to grow much throughout the book. It was nice to
see that some of Pham's intuitions, like the armored suit, didn't work
out because of his paranoia.
The events in the galaxy seemed a
natural consequence of what was happening, as well, though we got it
second- or third-hand. Strange as it seems, it really did make sense for
the butterfly race to try and wipe out humanity, as they thought humans were carriers,
programmed, of the Blight.
I didn't really like the Internet
transmissions that provided a look at the outside galaxy. They were
disruptive, and felt like newsgroups from the early 1990s, which is of course
when the book was written. Just removing the clutter in the headers
probably would have made them less annoying. Although it did give us a
sense of how others felt about the Blight, humanity, and so on, the Net
seemed too much like the one we are used to, too familiar, to be a real
effective tool. Still, I suppose that some sort of network is necessary,
though it is probably beyond our imagination, so something familiar is somewhat
required. I did wonder if the data rate was actually measured in kilobits
per second, which is slower than what we get across networks today...
The book got a little slow before it
reached the halfway point. After we knew the galaxy and various species
well enough to make sense of what was happening, but before their goal
was reached, things were a little repetitive, and even the characters
didn't grow during that interval. That includes the stop at Harmonious
However, things really got interesting
again for a few chapters with the remains of the fleet from Sjandra Kei.
This was the injection of new blood into the story just as it was
getting tired, and was a welcome respite. I wished we could get more of
the story around these guys. Maybe in a sequel?
Once Ravna and Pham got to the Tines'
world, they had to figure out who was good and bad, if either would have
been a good choice, and recover the countermeasure, before the Blight
fleet arrived. I was pleased with the way the book ended, with Tine
politics and superior alien technology playing a role. The solution to
the Blight was ingenious, and completely unexpected, though I had a
glimmer that the shifting boundary of the zones was a result of the
Blight. The Countermeasure simply shifted the boundaries of the Beyond
and Transcend, forcing the Blight to become simple technology in the
I do wonder about future consequences,
though. Last time, billions of years ago, the Countermeasure remained
behind in part of the Blight archive. This time, I don't think it
survived. Certainly the part of it on Tines world didn't, and the Blight
wiped out any trace of it in the old archive. What happens billions of
years in the future, when some curious race fiddles with it again?
The denouement on Tines' world was also very acceptable. It sets up potential sequels, while also
giving us a stable political situation even if the author decides not to
revisit the world. Humans (including the hundred children in cold
storage) and Tine packs would begin to live together, grow up together,
and become more than they were separately. It was interesting to see how Jefri pretty much became part of Amdi's pack.
Steel didn't make it, but could be rebuilt by Flenser, and Vendacious
also survived, so there could be some enemies and some politics in the
There was so much to enjoy in this
book, but the Tines were especially enjoyable and interesting. The
politics and culture seemed very real, and the author worked us into it
very naturally, without any explanation -just throwing us into it, so
that we can learn as we go, and learn some more if we reread the
Although a day seemed to be the same
length all over the galaxy, including the Tines' world, I loved the
arctic reference to a "dayaround", since the sun never set in the
The only real complaint that I have
about the book is the focused point of view. I would have liked a little
more information on the Blight, what it was doing, what its motivation
was, how it was created, itself. In actual fact, it was simply the
catalyst to drive the character stories, which is enough. There were
also a number of spelling mistakes scattered through the book, which was
a little annoying.
For the sheer alien-ness of everything,
this book was amazing. It may have been just a little too long, but
injected new characters and betrayals at just the right time to keep
things moving, for the most part. This is definitely a book that has to