Zones of Thought

I recently finished a book by Vernor Vinge called Children of the Sky. It was the sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. They are part of a continuing series called the Zones of Thought series, which has overtaken the Known Space (by Larry Niven) series as my favorite series of books.

The series is based on the premise that the galaxy is divided into these so-called “Zones of Thought”. They dictate the level of automation and intelligence physically allowed in that region of space. They are an inherent property of the galaxy, but their boundaries can shift, either slowly over thousands of years or rapidly in “zone storms”. They radiate out from the center of the galaxy.

A map of the Zones of Thought

A map of the Zones of Thought

The zones are as follows:

At the center of the galaxy are the Unthinking Depths. Intelligent thought is impossible, and computers fail. Humans turn into animals.

Beyond the Depths is the Slow Zone. The speed of light is the ultimate cap on speed and hyper-intelligence is impossible. Computers cannot become sentient.

Above the Slow Zone is the Beyond. In the Beyond, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and automation becomes much more capable. The Beyond falls into layers; FTL drives increase in capability as you get “higher”. Machines built in the High Beyond will work less efficiently or fail in the Low Beyond. Most of interstellar civilization exists in the Beyond.

The highest Zone is the Transcend. The Transcend is the subject of much study in the Beyond in the field of Religion. This is because the Transcend is populated by hyper-intelligences called Powers that are essentially gods. Products manufactured in the Transcend are often sold to the Beyond, such as anti-gravity fabrics, machinery, etc. Powers sometimes interact with Upper Beyond civilizations by sending “emissary ships”.

A Fire Upon The Deep is based around a malevolent Power that is awakened from an archive in the Low Transcend that is the subject of a human expedition. The Blight, as it is called, proceeds to wipe out local civilization in the High Beyond. Only a single human ship escapes from the “High Lab” in the Low Transcend, and it carries a portion of the archive that, if reunited with the Blight, will destroy it. The Blight recognized this (it had been defeated in a similar way long in the past) and set out to destroy the Countermeasure.

Another human group figures this out and, with some help from another Power that is subsequently murdered (nobody is quite sure how Powers work) by the Blight, escapes the Blight’s invasion and travels to a world at the bottom of the Beyond where the ship carrying Countermeasure has taken refuge. The Blight pursues them, causing havoc in that part of the galaxy.

In the end, Countermeasure uses some strange Transcend technology to harness the system’s star (it actually goes dark for a little) and cause a massive Zone storm that extends the Slow Zone to engulf the world and the Blight (30 light years out from the world) and much of the Beyond in that part of the galaxy. This traps the Blight and the humans in local space, giving the humans a century or more to build up the technology of the civilization on the planet before the Blight builds ramscoops and comes to destroy its nemesis once and for all.

What really interested me about the book was the world the humans become stranded on. It is inhabited by an interesting alien race. Each alien is composed of 4-8 individual “members”, and so they are referred to as packs. Each member is a dog-like animal that communicates with the others using “mind sounds”. This raises some interesting consequences; for one, two packs cannot get extremely close to each other without losing consciousness; it is very hard for packs to work collaborate and thus it is hard for new technology to be made. Their civilization has been stuck in a medieval state for a long time. Packs also live for a very long time. They replace old members either through inbreeding (within their own pack) or by breeding with another pack. The only way for a pack to die is if all of the members die, which pretty much only happens in combat (or sickness). Packs can also split into two or merge. Also, each member contributes different aspects of personality to the pack. This means that packs can be planned, called broodkenning. Essentially, people can be “built”. Of course, when the first four humans land on the planet, all hell breaks loose.

The four humans from the High Lab are a family, with a small boy and a adolescent girl. The two parents are killed in an initial attack launched by the militaristic northern kingdom the humans set down in. A pair of traveling packs see the attack and kidnap the wounded girl, taking her back to a more understanding, peace-loving kingdom (ruled by “Woodcarver”) in the south. The boy is captured by the northern “Flenserists”. He doesn’t realize that they are malicious though, and ends up befriending a pack that was built entirely from puppies (usually such packs become autistic). The two are manipulated by Flenser and start communicating with the human rescue expedition. Woodcarver’s kingdom has a dataset from the girl, and they use it to build cannons and prepare for war with Flenser in the north. However, Flenser has the support of the rescue party (since they don’t know that Flenser is evil). Eventually Woodcarver defeats Flenser in a battle just as the rescue party arrives.

Vernor Vinge always creates interesting aliens. There are others in his series, such as the Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky and the Skroderiders (sentient plants, essentially), who are space traders in A Fire Upon The Deep. I draw a lot of inspiration from his stories, both in character design and plot creation.

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Interstellar Travel

The most important part of writing science fiction is laying down a set of rules which stays constant throughout the book. In A Fire Upon the Deep (aFUtD), there was hyperwave, anti-gravity, hyperspace, and the Zones. In The Mote in God’s Eye (tMiGE), there were only two pieces of technology which violated physics: the Alderson Drive and Langston Field. Each was defined very clearly. Nothing is more infuriating than when an author saves the day with a previously undisplayed loophole.

Cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

The interesting thing about tMiGE is the interstellar travel. Scifi authors usually couple FTL travel with FTL communications; in tMiGE, the only way to send a message to another star system in a timely manner is to send a messenger ship. In addition, jumps between systems can only be made from specific points within each system, determined by the mass of the star and the arrangement of surrounding systems. aFUtD uses a similarly interesting, but completely different, device. Starships in the Beyond make micro-jumps, instantaneously jumping between two points in space and then calculating the next jump. This means that to go faster you just need more computing power. Systems built for different regions of the Beyond work differently; a bottom-lugger isn’t as fast as a state-of-the-art battleship except close to the Slow Zone.

In the fictional world I’ve been developing through a short story, interstellar travel is also interesting. Like tMiGE, the only way to go faster than light is with a spaceship. In my universe, ships have a minimum size requirement; messenger probes are out of the question. An interstellar drive has two parts: the ring, and the spikes. The ring manipulates space, flattening the local regions of the universe around the ship. While in theory a ring could be any size (bigger rings make bigger fields in a not quite linear fashion), it would lack control and have a tendency to fall into gravity fields. That’s why a ship needs spikes. Spikes are long, thin sensors that monitor the properties of the universe in small regions of space. They help the ring avoid massive bodies, correct for small spatial inconsistencies, and deactivate in the correct place. The more spikes a ship has, the safer and more precise it is. The higher quality a ring a ship has, the faster it can go. A ship that was too small wouldn’t be able to avoid planetary bodies or have a large enough detection field to navigate in flattened space. Ok, so maybe there is a little bit of Handwavium. But not THAT much.

You may be wondering: if the spikes hold sensors, why not just make a bigger spacecraft and imbed the sensors within the hull? Good question, reader. The answer is: you could. That is, if you are filthy rich. Rich people sometimes drive crazy cars and build crazy buildings, so certainly some people would make stylish spacecraft. At the end of the day, though, your spaceship is still occupying the same volume of space. It uses more sensors (unless you want minute pockets within your spaceship to expand and explode), and it only gives so much more interior space. It masses more, which means more energy or fuel to boost it through regular space. Spaceships aren’t like cars, either. Stylish lines are going to count for very little; even space stations don’t have windows, and nobody uses video to navigate. The result is that most spaceships are spheres inside a forest of spikes. Not very romantic, is it?

Mass is going to be the limiting factor on spaceship size. Unless you have very expensive spikes, you are still going to redimensionalize hundreds of thousands of miles from your target. You need some sort of in-system propulsion system. Since it is impractical to put a high-powered propulsion system aboard an already too-small ship, most spaceships would use local services: tugboats. Even obscure areas could afford one or two spacecraft with excellent traditional drives that can ferry interstellar craft around in cubic space. This also solves the problem of giving interstellar craft big dangerous drives that create exhaust. Except for military ships, redimensionalizing craft wouldn’t run the risk of toasting someone behind them. Military ships would be the exception; your enemies aren’t going to help you invade their system, so you need your own engines. On the other hand, military ships would be significantly different already. Most attack ships would be gigantic; they need to carry ship-board weapons, planetary craft, and a propulsion system. Military ships also carry prized interstellar equipment; governments are going to outfit their fleet with the finest rings and spikes.

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