This is an excellent hard SF story, and it won the Hugo for good reason: well developed characters, complex but tight plot and subplots, a fine literary style, and intriguing prediction of technology, science, and societies. While I enjoyed Vinge’s Rainbow’s End (my review), I think this is even better.
This is a long book, but I never felt bogged down. Vinge, a former Professor of Mathematics, uses his education and ability to research to underpin a book full of hard science but never too technical or pedantic. The technology (and the cultural inventions for future humans and aliens) all service the story.
The book, subtitled Zones of Thought series Book 2, takes place 30,000 years before the Book 1 (yes, you read that right)—reading them in order is unnecessary (I didn’t). The major characters come from three different groups: two human groups with distinct cultures (Qeng Ho and the Emergents) and an alien race recently discovered and uncontacted. The aliens inhabit a planet with a bizarre cosmology: their star is dormant for most of a 250 cycle, when even the air freezes, resulting in the need for a hibernation in “the deep” during the brutal “Darkness.”
The two humans are on a joint mission to investigate the sun and its race, hoping for some scientific and trading benefit. What they find stuns both groups of humans, but as they wait for the sun to relight and the aliens to appear, the two sides clash with catastrophic results. The survivors—masters and slaves—must find a way to survive the decades, hoping to find their respective hopes fulfilled (freedom from oppression, technology for a way home) when the aliens emerge.
Sublots work their way through the major story, giving the reader surprises, revelations, and moving back stories, all of which come together at the end for a major payoff. It takes skill to weave such an epic, lengthy, multifaceted narrative in a way that engages the reader like this novel. Vinge has done an exemplary job. I recommend this book, not only for SF fans, but anyone who enjoys epic storytelling.
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