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This is one of those pivotal reads that, while it is interesting and engrossing during time spent page turning, its enchantments dull somewhat as current technology and conceptual popularity filch some of its inventive glow. I normally don't write reviews in the 1st person, but I think it is important for this one because a lot of the appeal here is its scientific conceits, and my education and interest is not necessarily in that realm. Many people brainier than I have pondered Vinge's take on Singularity (see http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/and/or www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~phoenix/vinge/vinge-sing.html). And, while I applaud the creative expansion of the Usenet into galactic proportions and am intrigued by a universe that is layered by limitations of the technology that can be utilized or invented, I approach these things as plot devices, not innovative scientific speculations.
That said, this is truly grandoise space opera, and my attention and heart was always with the beings that are mere motes turning the essence of the universe into something else altogether. It starts with the unleashing of the Blight which rapidly gobbles up the worlds of the Beyond, a region of the Milky Way between the Transcend and the Slow Zone where most technology-savvy beings reside. The only hope is the Counter Measure on board a human ship that crashed on a medieval-level planet at the bottom of the Beyond. The narrative is split between the beings—one human female, one Ur-human male, and 2 Skroderiders who are aliens with fronds and ride around on computerized bumper cars—as they rush across space to find the Counter Measure while being furiously pursued by the Blight's allies. The other groups are the two human children surviving on Tine's World, and the opposing armies of Tines that have captured one child apiece. At the end of 600+ pages, these storylines culminate in an explosive climax. Both narrative threads of the pursuit and the captured are riveting, although the antics through space become a little stalled at times.
The other storyline is saved from the whining petulance of the 14-year old girl and the gee-whiz wonderment of the 9-year old boy by the indigenous race of creatures known as the Tines. They are a true wonderment of race-building. Canine-like, they are not complete unless grouped with other members. Packs of 4 to 8 members are the norm. They meld into a hive mind which is much stronger than each individual, yet the uniqueness of the single members notes the intelligence, interest, stamina, etc of the pack. Telepathically linked, they experience reality through all of their individuals' sensations simultaneously. But they cannot be far apart from each other or physically close to other packs without getting psychic static that confuses and renders them useless. Certain ambitious Tines have experimented with pack building using Pavlovian condition-response psychology, Dr. Mengele-inspired experiments, and classic backwoods-breeder incestual techniques. The results have created extreme leadership ranging from Machiavellian evil to Gandalf-like good. Without opposable thumbs, they team up to use crossbows or catapults, but most disputes are regulated to wolfen rage and slaughter. A new era of politics is imagined when the human children introduce chemically-propulsioned weaponry.
More importantly, their accidental arrival opens up the possibilities of Tine-like telepathy and pack melding with other species. Vinge hints at future profundities when one of the packs uses a radio link to communicate with its members. Now, if those paws can just build satellites to bounce the radio beams into space . . .
But swallow back any sequel salivations. Vinge's next coterminous work in this universe, A Deepness in the Sky, happens 30,000 years before this action.