Final thoughts on the Singularity, Zones of Thought, and A Fire Upon the Deep

Warning: as it is final comments, there are a number of BIG spoilers, so if you plan to read the book, and don’t read the endings first like my mother, put it aside and read when you are done with the book, or if you have short-term memory problems like me, go ahead and read it – you’ll forget it all by the time you read the book. : )

A Fire Upon the Deep

I just finished the book about 1am today (Friday). I took some time, due to the scale of the book, and the thought processes it took. For some reason, the complexity of ideas made me think, and when I think, I close my eyes, and when I close my eyes, well, zzzzz…

So, here it is, in order of thought as I went through, arranged in reading order, not in order to make sense, at least until the final summation. For those of you who love this book, my final thoughts are better than the first ones, although I still have some comments/complaints. I DO know how hard it is to see a favorite book “torn apart” by someone – I had that happen to me with a favorite SS (Nine Billion Names of God by Clarke) from ages past that I reread periodically – it was trashed, and didn’t truly hold up to the light of day (although I still think it’s better than most of that short a length), and I was crushed. Hurt.

Although I still think the one I couldn’t get many to read, “The Star” (Clarke), DID stand the test, and looking back on it, it was one of the crystallizing forces for my beliefs – they did not change because of the story – but put a face on them, and made sense of them, so I could better understand not only my rational responses, but my visceral responses as well, which had been largely ignored by me.

That said, here goes:

I still have trouble with the “Zones of Thought” – and did throughout the book. For example – how can a computer, made in the Middle Beyond, get “dumber” as the book calls it, the lower (or closer to the core) they go? And what is with the “depth” of the zones vs. the closer to the galactic core? I know someone tried to explain, but I’m still obtuse about it. The book talks over and over about the galactic plane, and how the Slowness and the Deep are close in, but they also refer to it as depths. I know space is 3-D, so what gives? Am I that much an idiot on geometry? I also know there is some extension up and down from the plane, but in reality, the book talks about the plane and the Depths as one.

Automation stopped working or became slower in the Depths. Same question really as before. How can automation, which sems to be a done deal, unless it uses unknown forces, change within the Zones? What properties of the Zones allow this change? I know the machines were made higher up, but why do they change? The people don’t, so why does the machinery? Why do the ultra-drives stop working, and only ram-scoops work? Why can’t “modern” machinery work down in the slowness, and why/how must the races there be “trapped”, since many make it out, or there would be no Lower, Middle or High Beyond, let alone Transcend.

Vinge says we can’t begin to understand about Transcendents, nor can any writer truly write about them, but yet he SPOILER HERE!!!!!
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states there is a “glimpse of evil on a Transcend scale” when he talks about the Skroderiders, and what was done to them. How can we “glimpse” this evil, and understand the Skroderiders, as they are well discussed/described in their perversion, if they come from the Transcend (or higher)?

The book talks about operating at Sjandra Kei’s “altitude” in the beyond – does that refer to the height they were in the sense of the Beyonds, or something else?

I don’t know much about video streaming, but they talk about video (although partial and dredged from old videos with voice/animation patched in), being possible in the Slowness at 4000 bits/sec. Now I know that I download at some kilobytes per second, and it’s slooow. Wouldn’t video be almost impossible at that speed, or am I reading the KB v Bits wrong? Or is this just another “error” from old computing in the 90’s?

He talks about Slowness being thought of as “the domain of cretins and mechanical calculators” several times – yet he seems to have admiration for the race (Tines) he created for that “depth” but then he says that there was “something to that” [meaning the cretins and calculators]. Why did some of the stuff that Ravna (I remember her name now) used to help Steel work? Was it strictly stuff the old races used to help move out of the Slowness, or were they more of the creation of the Beyond, which means in his parlance, they shouldn’t work. And why does much of the ship still work; even though it has been retrofitted to be like a bottom-lugger, there must still be systems from Beyond, or how else could Pilgrim fly it – it can’t all be a mechanical calculator.

And after the Surge, her wrist display had only a “few alpha-numeric” lines – if it was just a mechanical calculator in concept, shouldn’t it not work at all? And the “landing boat”, the flier, could still be flown although contrary to the Zone it “worked with electronics that were barely more than glorified moving parts.” But they still were electronics, as were the radios. And agrav worked. Now there was little discussion on how that (agrav) worked, but I would think it more than “mechanical.”

And Dataset, obviously electronic, has worked all along – now I know it’s necessary for a plot device, but doesn’t it’s existence in the Slowness directly contradict the Zone rules? And Greenstalk’s new Skrode, although clearly base in design, must have some kind of technology if it is to serve as an interface for her – without it she is nothing more than a lesser Rider, as will be her descendants, when her Skrode fails. So how can the Skrode either be an interface (and thus clearly defying the Zone laws), or a simple mechanical wheelchair, which mean she can’t have the ability to keep memories, which she does, although to a lesser degree. She is still making memories, at least from the text of the book.

At the end of the book, the Queen talks about how the agrav will fail within a few years and be unable to be replaced. Yet Pilgrim thinks they can bypass a hundred years or so of development, and have working space-flight, and eventually escape the Slowness, which now encompasses a large part of the galaxy, (a wedge perhaps?), all the way up to the Transcend and into it. So they would have to move across the plane into non-affected areas. But how do they eventually “make” stuff that can move them out if the Zone doesn’t allow it? Do they “think” themselves out of it? I just don’t get the laws. They seem contradictory.

More BIG SPOILER ALERT:
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And how did there come to be “Powers” BEYOND the Powers? If we can’t begin to understand the Transcend, or write about it, how on earth can we even know about a race beyond it, or speculate about it as creating the Counter-measure? “Cloud People”?? Who on earth on they? And he writes: “Oh, the ghost of the Old One is amused. Seeing beyond the Powers was almost worth dying for.” So, he knows something about the big T.

And Pham brings down the Beyond, to move the Blight closer, then creates the surge that pushes it back into the Transcend, according to the end of the book, and effectively trapping the Blight in the Slowness. How. I know it’s the countermeasure, but i wish it were better described. I know, you can’t describe something you don’t understand, but then how can you create the idea at all? To create you must have some idea. And if so, then share it!

Now for the summation – putting aside all my questions about the Slowness and the Zones of Thought, which I thought were poorly conceived, and executed. BUT, a big BUT, I did begin to like the Tines, even though I hate dog/wolf/owl races, and medieval times (although I liked them well enough to study them as English History…weird), but as an alien race, I came to a better understanding of how they worked later in the book (in one line they were described as at long range as looking sort of like a spider – which would have helped 600 pages before!), and their distributed intelligence, which was better explained and executed in the finale I thought, with the Flenser fragment separating miles with the radio cloaks abilities, and with the merging of Amdijefri.

And I liked the ending – happy – most loose ends tied up, but with possibilities still intact, although since he’s said no more space-operas, I guess there won’t be any more “explanations.” I liked Greenstalk’s end, the way the “two-legs” and Tines worked better together, although it appeared that the Tines came out on top of that deal. And the den-mother for librarian Ravna was an okay ending – something to hold on to in the endless exile she faces. With no human man/adult around, she will be alone forever. And that was not addressed – her loneliness – the kids will grow up and merge with the packs and the other cold-sleep kids, but who will she have? She didn’t seem close to anyone but Pilgrim maybe (and that was only late in the book when she met him, and he is with the Queen). So there is no pack for her to meld with.

She is truly the only one alone. Even Greenstalk will have her children and with her shallow memories, will be okay, although she has fond memories of Blueshell. So, being alone myself at a time in my life when I should be happy with lots of family, I feel for her future. What will she do – they are cut off from the net (her job/life) and the archives forever, or until the move up, at which time she will be dead. Will she just be a den-mother? But the kids will grow up. Will she become a librarian of all that the packs/tribes know? But it’s all in their heads, for centuries – will she transcribe it – I wish they had given her more attention – after all it was her determination that got them there – since they needed the Skroderiders in the end, she was instrumental.

So I’ll try the prequel, but since I didn’t really like Pham, don’t like the name, and don’t like pirates/medieval settings/war, It’s a big question mark.

Again, sorry for the length, but I wanted to see if some of these thoughts would be addressed by anyone, and points cleared up or given an interpretation that I missed, which I wouldn’t get on my blog.

So, my score? Probably 8 or 7.5 for the Zones. But the story itself was satisfactory and had some interesting turns and twists and “fun” stuff, like “god-shatter,” Skroderiders, the early concepts of the Net, and the way packs changed over long periods of time, yet retained their “soul.” But it is dated, IMO. The fact that it relies on computers so much, and the format the messages are “delivered” in reminds me too much of earlier computing days. Some of those comments/complaints are in the earlier post. But when you skate near the edge of the future, without going over – in other-words, stick too close to the rules, rather than make them up as you go along, you run that risk – of being shown wrong. Of having the technology develop beyond what you wrote about, supposedly centuries/millenia later.

When one limits the imagination to extrapolation in SciFi, that can be the ultimate demise of the book. I have a feeling, that in 20 years time, it will not be standing next to 2001, or I, Robot, but will just be another good, old favorite. To me the best way to handle SciFi is either to make it near-future, if you want extrapolation of existing science (i.e. no FTL), OR make up your own rules, and science be damned. I personally, since I’m not a scientist, don’t hold to the same rigid standards as some HardSF readers do. I prefer books that stoke my imagination, and I simply cannot find that in-system settings, which is about as far as you can go, unless you use a generational ship, and those can get boring to me.

I want a Star Wars future – full of aliens, and cool things, but also full of ideals, ideas, and fun. I want Chindi, or Lady of Mazes, or Flux. I want to be amazed, to be delighted and to close the book with sigh, rather than just a “done with that, where’s the next,” knowing that with my memory, much will be forgotten by next week (although the blogs help cement some of it). But I wrote one on Rainbows End, and already much of it is beginning to disappear. Only the best and the brightest stay with me to any extent, and even then, it’s a mish-mash. I envy some, like a friend on the HardSF group, who can seemingly pull almost any book, author, plot and comments out of his endless memory – how wonderful that must be. I used to keep little index cards on each book I wrote, with title, publishing date, author, date read, rating, and small summary. That was many years ago, but I read about the same then as I do now, so I bet I could do it – just need to get in the habit, and find a cute old card catalog drawer set to put them in – I still have the old ones from 25 years ago!

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3 responses to “Final thoughts on the Singularity, Zones of Thought, and A Fire Upon the Deep

  1. “Down” is toward the galactic center, whether in-plane or out.

    I’m reading it for the second time, and it is so quaint how he has all this “newsgroup” stuff. But that fits the time the book was written, before the newsgroups became pure spam and porn, and spam porn, in the early 90s.

    Maybe the Powers have good filters.

  2. Sorry for the very late comment, but this comes up as one of the top Google results for Zones of Thought, and I wanted to address some of your points.

    1. When he talks about video, what he’s talking about is basically reconstructed video; rather than sending frames of the video, they send animation cues and text. Then the shipboard computer takes that and creates a video out of it. This is actually a plot point, as they notice that the people in one of the videos are out of date (a single picture of the people is sent as a header to the videos).

    2. The Tines world is supposed to be at the same “level” as Earth is, which means that anything possible there is possible here. That’s why electronics still work. Anything that Earth currently has, the Tines could make. Their plan to eventually escape the Slowness was to build up a space program, and then travel outwards over thousands of years at slower than lightspeed (as it’s not possible to go faster at that level).

    3. They refer to altitude just like we do; it’s up or down from the center, no matter your position on the sphere.

    4. The reason that the Zones work is because the physical laws of the universe are different on every level. So ultra-drives will fail when the physical rules that they’re built on are no longer true. Most of the systems on these vessels are designed to degrade gracefully, so that when you lose the upper levels you’ll still have a lower level to function with. Most of the time, when characters are talking about how crappy their technology has become, Vinge is indulging in a little bit of irony; their devices are still much better than we have. It’s like someone complaining about only having 1Gbps internet – to someone in the 80s, that would still seem godly.

    5. Being “trapped” in the Slowness just means that it’ll take you a long time to get out, as the deeper you go, the lower your speed limit. At a certain depth, you can’t go faster than lightspeed, which means that by the time you get back to your home, everything has probably already moved on. It’s like a fly trapped in amber, only to be let out hundreds of years later.

    6. The suggestion is that whatever the countermeasure was, it was even more powerful than a Power, capable of reshaping the physical laws of the universe. It was the reason that there even are Zones of Thought. Vinge is wise enough to not offer an explanation as to how this is possible.

    Hope that clears some things up.

  3. Here’s an idea I just had about it.

    Think about taking a GPS back to the year 1900. The machine is undamaged, still works fine. There’s just no satellites to feed it data. It becomes virtually useless when taken outside of the context of the network it was developed within. I think that might explain why transcendent technology becomes increasingly “dumb” as it sinks deeper into slowness.