Or possibly, was: Earth doesn’t feature in this story. ↩︎
Arguably it was instantly a classic, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. ↩︎
A rereading, this, but I remembered much less of it than I thought, and enjoyed it even more than I expected to.
All I really remembered in any detail was the dog-like pack-based beings, the Tines. Maybe a vague sense of the rogue superintelligent AI that caused all the problems.
And the “Zones of Thought” themselves, of course. A genius idea, which, in brief summary, is this: the further out from the galactic core you get, the more advanced the technology that is possible. Implicitly that includes biology. It’s never explicitly stated, but it seems likely that deep inside the galaxy, in the “Unthinking Depths,” intelligence is not possible. Further out you get the “Slow Zone”, which is where Earth is.1 Only sub-lightspeed travel is possible here, and machines cannot become intelligent.
But all this changes when you get to the galactic fringes, or the “Beyond,” where FTL and something close to AI are commonplace. And the further up the Beyond you go, the more this is true, until you reach the “Transcend,” where godlike AIs exist.
My memory was that the sections with the Tines were kind of annoying, with a sense of, “I want my space operas to be set in space, with high tech; not on a mediaeval-level world with nothing more advanced than cartwheels."2 But of course the story of the kids stranded on the Tines' World are both fundamental to the overall story, and at least as good as the galaxy-spanning main plot.
This book has gone from new, Hugo- & Nebula-Award winner to SF Masterwork in what feels like a very short time. It was first published in 1991, which is 25 years ago. I suppose that’s enough time to become a classic.3 The accolades are thoroughly deserved, of course.
The SF Masterworks edition has an introduction by Ken McLeod, which is well worth reading, and the whole is highly recommended by me.
A scorching, searing cyberpunk space opera. It has _everything_ in it: FTL starships, uploaded minds, nanotech, the Singularity, wormhole gateways... Absolutely stunning stuff.
Though on the downside, I did find it bit hard to follow some of the plot twists and turns. Specifically, it wasn’t always immediately obvious to me why some of the alliances and disputes between the various factions happened. I expect a more careful reading, or retracing of my steps, would have resolved those difficulties. But such was the pace of the plot that I didn’t want to.
I loved some of the terminology. Travelling faster than light, for example, is called ‘fittling’ (from FTL). The technological singularity is called the ‘hard rapture’. I especially like that Ken has grabbed the term ‘Rapture’ from the weirdo fundamentalists christians who believe Jesus is going to come back and sweep them all up to heaven. The Googleplex (for example) becoming self-aware and sucking up everyone’s mindstate is far more likely, if you ask me. Which is not saying a lot about its likelihood…
One of the groupings of humanity that have survived through the hard rapture, and remain players on galactic stage, are called the Carlyles. They started out as a Glasgow gang, basically. They were based in something called ‘The Castle on the Clyde’, which I’d like to hear more about. Then there’s AO: America Offline. They didn’t get uploaded because they weren’t connected to the net.
This means that the two main dialects of the language everyone speaks are called ‘American’ and ‘English’; but the ‘English’ is rendered partly in Scots. Good fun.
I haven’t read any of Ken’s stuff for a while (aside from his blog, obviously). That’s a situation I need to put right forthwith. But first I think I should go back to the start, and dig The Star Fraction out of the attic.