Blind Lake is a small town in the desert, built around a large scientific installation called Eyeball Alley. There, researchers use technology even they don't fully understand to observe alien life on a distant world.
Then, abruptly, the town is put under total military Lockdown. No contact with the outside is allowed, not even communication. Trapped in Blind Lake, the characters try to adapt to their new situation and figure out the reason for their sudden isolation.
The story switches between the viewpoints of a number of characters. Among the most significant are:
- Marguerite Hauser, head scientist at Eyeball Alley
- Ray Scutter, her control-freak ex-husband
- Tess Hauser, their Oracular Urchin daughter
- Chris Carmody, a disgraced journalist with a martyr complex
- Subject, an alien being observed by the facility
- 20 Minutes into the Future: No specific date is given, but it can be inferred to be about 2047 based on an offhand comment in the narration about My Favorite Brunette being a century old.
This novel provides examples of:
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Posited as a possible fate of the former inhabitants of HR8832/B
- Bowdlerize: Marguerite name-drops Bowdler during her speech on language.
- Brown Note: Discussed as a possible reason for the information lockdown
- Cargo Cult: Not a major part of the plot, but the Crossbanks Starfish inspires some cults
- Driven to Suicide: Chris wrote a muckracking book about a man who subsequently committed suicide. Chris blames himself.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Subject. Part of a deliberate effort not to anthropomorphize the aliens.
- Lockdown: Of the entire town, with not even communication allowed
- Naming Your Colony World: Goes the "Numbers and Letters" route with HR8832/B and UMa47/E
- Red Shirt: Bob, who dies mere pages after his introduction to prove the danger of the situation
- Sanity Slippage: Ray becomes more and more unbalanced as the lockdown continues
- Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Ray tells Marguerite that their joint-custody arrangement for Tess was crafted by lawyers outside of Blind Lake, who they can no longer contact. Inside Blind Lake, he is the law.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Marguerite complains that, in their attempts to maintain a neutral scientific perspective and avoid mistakenly anthropomorphizing the aliens, they've been reduced to this; for instance, having to say "Subject ingested a bolus of vegetable matter" when they mean "He ate a plant".
- Touched by Vorlons: Tess. And Subject could be considered to be "Touched By Humans".
- Villainous Breakdown: Ray, during his speech about the O/BECs