Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Vernor Vinge
(1992, TOR Books)

Zones of Thought, book 1

A rescue is launched for a human child trapped on a war-torn medieval world, which might hold the key to destroying of a powerful force set to conquer the galaxy.


+ -- First reading (hardcover)
December 27th, 2002 to January 4th, 2003


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 personalities.

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 its own.

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 information.

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 Repose (R.I.P.!).

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 Slowness.

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 future.

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 beginning.

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 summer!

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 be recommended.


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