This is a novella of about 30,000 words, not a novel; it was written to introduce the ideas that Vinge later used in A fire upon the deep.
As fiction, it's a good, readable story about a likeable, ordinary-seeming university student with an unusual pet; both of whom turn out to have an extraordinary background and destiny.
Warning: leave this page now if you haven't read the story and want to be surprised by it.
The main ideas Vinge introduces are:
- A galaxy divided into zones in which the rules of physics appear to work differently: roughly, the nearer you are to the centre of the galaxy, the slower everything works. He uses this device to put a sort of limit on technological progress in the Slow Zone, so that he can write stories about the far future without everything getting out of hand. However, there is also a Fast Zone, and it is possible to travel from one zone to another.
- An alien species in which each individual personality is composed of a small group of separate creatures, in constant communication with each other by high-frequency sound waves. The group is more intelligent than any one of its members.
I find the group personalities more interesting than the galactic zones, which are perhaps a useful fictional device but don't strike me as very plausible.
This is one of my favourite Vinge stories, and I always enjoy reading it, but it occurred to me just recently that it seems to have a couple of serious flaws.
- The blabber is deliberately left by its own parents alone on a planet of humans, to grow up as an animal, the pet of a human. OK, alien creatures may be excused a certain amount of weird behaviour, but this seems so weird that it's not easily excused. I understand that there was some small reason for it, but I don't see any really strong, compelling reason.
- When the blabber is eventually reunited with its own kind, it's almost immediately able to communicate and to become integrated into a new group personality. How can this be? The creatures aren't telepathic, they communicate by sound, in principle just as we do. Surely the blabber would be like a human child brought up by animals: it would need years of education to communicate with its own kind and integrate into their society, and would probably integrate badly even then. I suppose Vinge knew this but chose to shut his eyes and ignore it for the sake of the story.
Written in October 2008