After thousands of years searching, humans stand on the verge of first contact with an alien race. Two human groups: the Qeng Ho, a culture of free traders, and the Emergents, a ruthless society based on the technological enslavement of minds. The group that opens trade with the aliens will... read more
The Qeng Ho arrive at the On/Off star shortly before the Emergent fleet, a few years before the sun turns on, at which point the Spider civilization will "wake up" and continue its climb into a technological civilization. A reception held by the Emergents doubles as a vector to infect the Qeng... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
The Qeng Ho arrive at the On/Off star shortly before the Emergent fleet, a few years before the sun turns on, at which point the Spider civilization will "wake up" and continue its climb into a technological civilization. A reception held by the Emergents doubles as a vector to infect the Qeng Ho with a timed "mindrot" virus. The Emergents time an ambush to take advantage of the onset of symptoms.
During these events, a concurrent history of the Spider civilization is developed mainly through the picaresque, and then increasingly political and technocratic, experiences of a small group of liberal-minded and progressive Spiders. Their struggles against ignorance, and soon-to-become irrelevant traditions, are coloured with oddly human-like descriptions and nomenclature, prefiguring some major plot revelations towards the end of the story.
Far above, after a close fight, the Emergents subjugate the Qeng Ho; but losses to both sides force them to combine and adopt the so-called "Lurker strategy", in which they monitor and aid the Spiders' technological development, waiting until they build up the massive infrastructure and technological base that the visitors need in order to repair their vessels.
The mindrot virus originally manifested itself on the Emergents' home world as a devastating plague, but they subsequently mastered it and learned to use it both as a weapon and as a tool for mental domination. Emergent culture uses mindrot primarily in the form of a variant which technicians can manipulate in order to release neurotoxins to specific parts of the brain. An active MRI-type device triggers changes through dia- and paramagnetic biological molecules. By manipulating the brain in this way, Emergent managers induce obsession with a single idea or specialty, which they call Focus, essentially turning people into brilliant appliances. Many Qeng Ho become Focused against their will, and the Emergents retain the rest of the population under mass surveillance, with only a portion of the crew not in suspended animation. The Qeng Ho trading culture gradually starts to dilute this totalitarian regime, by demonstrating to the Emergents certain benefits of tolerated and restricted free trade; the two human cultures merge to some extent over the decades of forced co-operation.
Pham Nuwen, the founder of the Qeng Ho trading culture, is living aboard the fleet under the pseudonym Pham Trinli, posing as an inept and bumbling fleet elder. He subverts the Emergents' own oppressive security systems through a series of high-risk ruses. During his plotting he begins to admire the Emergents' Focus technology, and begins to evaluate its usage in his own plans for the future of the fleet.
The plan to wrest fleet control from the Emergents, however, requires the co-operation of a much younger Qeng Ho who - due to attrition - has become the Qeng Ho 'Fleet Manager'. His position as the unique liaison officer between Qeng Ho and Emergents leads him to despair, and he accepts Pham Nuwen's offer to join a plot against the Emergents as a way to personal redemption as well as revenge against the Emergents. However, his understanding of Pham's ambitions for Focus technology leads to a confrontation between them over the future use of Focus by the Qeng Ho.
Coming to an understanding, the two seize the critical moment when the Emergents attempt to provoke a nuclear war on the Spider home-world, in order to seize power. By subverting the Emergents' management systems and by luck and human resilience, they defeat the ruling class of the Emergents.
The combined Emergent/Qeng Ho fleet now negotiates with the Spider civilization as a trading partner. Pham announces his plans to free all of the Focused in the entire Emergent civilization, and, if he survives that, to go to the center of the galaxy to find the source of the On/Off star and the strange technology remnants that have clearly traveled with it. The story of that quest is briefly told as part of the back story in A Fire Upon the Deep. The latter novel also shows that Pham had been mistaken in identifying the center of the galaxy as the likely source of the artifacts, as the outer portions of the galaxy were the ones with greater technological sophistication.
“Tomas needed at least as many free as Focused, else the system would die the death of details.”
“You want a deepness that endures, a deepness the Spiderkind can depend on? Pendure, there is a deepness in the sky, and it extends forever.”Sherkaner Underhill
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