Set twenty thousand years earlier than A Fire Upon The Deep
, Vernor Vinge's second book in the Zones of Thought universe shares little and requires nothing of its companion volume. It's action alternates between the inhabitants of an alien world and human observers concealed in orbit above. The Spiders have developed pre-space flight technology and struggle with the 250-year freeze-and-thaw cycle of their planet's On/Off variable star. The orbiting humans consist of two factions. The Qeng Ho have goals of trade and communication. The Emergents have the more direct agenda of conquest and domination. As the book proceeds, we watch the Spiders develop technically and socially. Simultaneously, the more advanced Emergents and Qeng Ho intrigue, fight, integrate, intrigue and fight. It all works out much better than it should.
Like Vinge's other fiction, this book is host to a number of "big ideas" that take the stage along with the actions and inactions of the characters. They include:
An alien species--the Spiders--that seems far less alien than they really should. What seems like bad writing through much of the book is given a reasonable explanation in the end. These creatures are interesting and even--heaven help me--cute.
A variable star turns on and off at regular intervals. The possible explanations are intriguing as are its effects on the evolution of life on its planets.
A tailored "mindrot" virus produces various neurological effects, including an exaggerated ability to concentrate called "Focus." The virus is both a disease and an altered state that makes workers diligent, productive and savant-like. It has uses and abuses, not always easy to distinguish.
A flexible, self-organizing network technology constructed of large numbers of simple processors massively interconnected. The security and flexibility of the resulting "mesh networks" are explored by their Qeng Ho and Emergent users.
If you plan to also read A Fire Upon The Deep
, then read it first for the most enjoyable experience. That said, this book can stand on its own and is good, enjoyable space opera. The story has its darker elements, but is well-worth a persistent reading. With good justification, it is considered one of science fiction's classics.