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Literature / Zones of Thought
aka: A Fire Upon The Deep

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The Zones of Thought is a science-fiction setting created by Vernor Vinge. It currently consists of three books and one short story:

  • The Blabber, published in Threats and Other Promises (1988)
  • A Fire Upon the Deep (1992)
  • A Deepness in the Sky (1999)
  • The Children of the Sky (2011)

In the Zones of Thought verse, the basic gimmick is that The Singularity is turned sideways, becoming a boundary in space instead of time. In the Unthinking Depths near the core of the galaxy, no intelligence is possible; in the Slow Zone, where Earth is, Mundane Dogmatic rules apply; the Beyond allows soft SF tropes such as Faster-Than-Light Travel or Antigravity; and in the Transcend, everyone is Sufficiently Advanced. Thus, as you head out of the galaxy, you see the same progression of advancing technologies as you'd expect to see over time if our technology went through a Singularity. In the Slow Zone, Vinge posits that human technological advance reached an apex with the "Age of Failed Dreams", during which it was discovered that faster than light travel, immortality, strong AI, and a few other things are impossible.

A Deepness in the Sky takes place in the Slow Zone, next to a very peculiar star. Humanity ignored it for centuries, until possible alien radio signals prompt two nearby cultures to each send a fleet of ships: the Qeng Ho, part of a group of interstellar traders, and the Emergents, an enigmatic civilization that has suddenly raised their technology to high levels. The book shares a single character with A Fire Upon the Deep, but is a distant Prequel with a drastically different setting.

A Fire upon the Deep, which was written first, mostly takes place in the Beyond. A human expedition to the Transcend releases the Blight, a malignant artificial intelligence which has been dormant for five billion years. The only survivors of the expedition are one family, who flee to a backwater world, where both parents are immediately killed and the children sucked into the power struggles of the medieval-level alien natives. Meanwhile, the Blight is rampaging across the galaxy, so a second expedition is sent in search of the children, on the off-chance that their parents might also have found a counter-measure.

The Children of the Sky, a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, came out in October 2011. It primarily follows Ravna, one of the main protagonists of Fire, as she attempts to prepare Tines World for the arrival of the Blight despite opposition from some of those who were in coldsleep during the events of the first book, and who are beginning to doubt her account of the events. It is clearly the start of a new series, as it ends in a cliff-hanger with multiple arcs truncated.

The Blabber is set at at least millennia later, on a human-colonized planet near the top of the Slow Zone. A young man has grown up with a very strange pet who is suddenly an object of intense interest when a shipful of Beyonder sightseers arrive. It was out of print for a long time but is now available in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (2001).

The Zones of Thought series contains examples of:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of Usenet, in the otherwise serious A Fire Upon the Deep.
  • Alternative Calendar: In A Deepness in the Sky, interstellar traders have done away with not just years and months, but also with days, hours and minutes. All timespans are measured in (appropriate powers-of-thousands of) seconds, with dates simply being the number of seconds since the UNIX epoch (with some unspecified but explicitly mentioned relativistic frame corrections) — though in-universe it is most commonly thought that the zero-second was at the first moon landing. Settled planets all have their own calendars. One way the traders know they have stayed too long is when they start using the locals' calendar.
  • Alternate Number System: The Tines have two different number systems: one where they count "by legs" (in base 4) and one where they count "by fore-claws" (in base 10). Confusion between these two systems leads to the accidental meeting of two of the major characters in A Fire Upon the Deep. Amdiranifani is housed in room 33, Jefri is supposed to be imprisoned in room 15 (33 in base 4), and the guard who's taking him there uses the wrong numbering system.
  • Anyone Can Die: Named characters fall like flies.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: A Fire Upon the Deep contains an extremely dormant trap setup by the Blight the last time it was active, billions of years ago. Those helpful Skroderiders everyone loves so much were uplifted specifically so that they would remain stable—neither transcend nor go extinct—and built with backdoor code so that the Blight could use them as slaves.
  • Ancient Evil: The Big Bad of A Fire Upon the Deep is the Blight, an Eldritch Abomination implied to be a kind of sentient computer virus that is capable of running on both mechanical and organic platforms—i.e., any sentient creature. Humans inadvertently boot up an ancient database that has hosted the dormant Blight for at least a few billion years, and it immediately begins to spread out over the galaxy-wide computer network, infecting both computers and sentient creatures.
  • And I Must Scream: The Blight can subvert and take over the mind and body of just about any sophont in the Beyond, but whether those beings remain conscious during their possession is left ambiguous. What's not left ambiguous is what the Blight does to Skroderiders. Skroderiders are basically sentient trees. They can't move around, talk, or even have cognitive processing at the speed of other races without their skrodes, a sort of wheeled electric base that gives them all those abilities. Instead of possessing the skroderiders, the Blight just subverts the skrodes. This effectively means that it controls their bodies, while leaving them totally conscious and aware of what's happening. The only one that is freed from control, Greenstalk, actually DOES break down screaming after a long period of mute shock and horror. The characters speculate that everyone in the regions directly overtaken by the Blight might live like this.
  • Androcles' Lion: In Children of the Sky, what saves Johanna from being torn apart by the Tropicals when she escapes into them. Their hive mind remembers her kind treatment of their singletons, and her work at the Fragmetarium.
  • Apocalypse How: A Fire Upon the Deep features a mind-boggling amount of death and destruction. While most of the good guys survive, and so does the planet on which most of the novel unfolded, an enormous area of High Beyond is converted to Slow Zone. This destroys the Blight, which is dependent on High Beyond technology for its survival. It is also the deathblow for trillions of beings and countless civilizations across a huge swath of the galaxy, whose existences depended on FTL and the same advanced tech as sustained the Blight.
  • Author Tract: A Deepness in the Sky often veers in this direction, particularly whenever there are comparisons between the Emergent civilization and Qeng Ho.
  • Backup Bluff: Pilgrim Wickwrackscar pulls quite a bold one one on Vendacious, successfully convincing the latter that his treachery is fully unveiled, and that Pilgrim is here to negotiate with him instead of Woodcarver and her soldiers, in order to prevent Vendacious from killing his hostage before anyone gets close enough to talk. Except that is all bullshit: No one else suspects anything yet, and Pilgrim's actions are entirely based on a hunch.
  • Batman Gambit: A Deepness in the Sky has a rare example of competing protagonist Batman Gambits. Sherkaner Underhill invaded the Focus system and manipulated it to defend against Nau's genocidal plans, while Pham Nuwen used the localizers to invade the system and manipulate it against Nau. They both almost squash each other by accident, buying Nau valuable time when executing his Evil Plan and leading to the probable death of both Sherkaner and his wife.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: Inverted in A Fire Upon the Deep, where humans are the aliens invading the medieval Tines planet and changing its culture to benefit both species. Granted, the invasion wasn't intentional (a cargo ship carrying children in stasis crash-landed on the planet and the humans only expected to stay long enough for rescuers to find them, but things got much more complicated), but by the end of the book, the humans have upset the political balance of a large part of the planet. By the start of The Children of the Sky, the sole adult human has become co-ruler of the most powerful nation on the planet, is working to advance the Tines' technology beyond Space Age levels within a century, and the human children are intermingling with the native Tines and creating a social revolution almost unintentionally.
  • Big Brother Is Watching:
    • In A Deepness in the Sky, the Emergents take over the Qeng Ho space fleet by force. La Résistance quickly forms, but one of the rebels discovers too late that the Emergents are watching everything they do, by using the Focus plague to create Slave Mooks who do nothing but monitor electronic surveillance. Later they take it up to eleven by using thousands of dust-sized cameras to watch over the Qeng Ho. Fortunately they don't know the man who originally developed the cameras is in their midst and has a backdoor to the program.
    • That naturally pales before Beyonder surveillance methods, revealed in The Chidren of the Sky — swarms of nanocameras, that infuse the target's bloodstream, can be transferred by a casual touch, and relay everything their host hears and sees. Of course, such technology swiftly decays in the Slow Zone.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • A Fire Upon the Deep. While most of the good guys survive, and so does the planet on which most of the novel unfolded, an enormous area of High Beyond is converted to Slow Zone. This destroys the Blight, which is dependent on High Beyond technology for its survival. It is also the deathblow for trillions of beings and countless civilizations across a huge swath of the galaxy, whose existences depended on FTL and the same advanced tech as sustained the Blight.
    • Children of the Sky isn't quite as dark as its prequels, but still makes it clear that its characters still have some very dangerous foes and obstacles to face in the near future; there are also some bittersweet partings.
  • Bizarre Alien Senses:
    • The Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky have a larger visible spectrum of light than humans, referring to infrared frequencies as "far-red" and ultraviolet as "far-blue". Human display technologies, designed only to display what we can see, look like simple and underdeveloped technology to them, despite our otherwise advanced capabilities. Some Spider dwellings also appear dark to us, due to being lit with light outside our visible spectrum. On one occasion, Spiders are also shown to be able to "hear" vibrations in the ground through their feet.
    • It's not shown in A Fire Upon the Deep, but in The Children of the Sky, Tines are shown to have such sharp hearing, and such precise control over the sounds that they can emit from their tympana, that they can use surprisingly fine echolocation as long as the surroundings are sufficiently quiet. This makes up for their poor low-light vision.
  • Brain/Computer Interface: Such interfaces are noted in passing in A Fire Upon The Deep. They don't work very well below the High Beyond, but their users still don't like taking them off.
  • Break the Cutie: Qiwi in A Deepness in the Sky... oh, where do we start?
    • She spends 5 or 6 years aboard a star ship, isolated from her peers with only a low-population skeleton crew for company. Of course, Qiwi and her parents find this a fun learning experience.
    • Later, the older Lisolet (Qiwi's mom) is killed in rather gruesome scene.
    • A work crew is seemingly cooked alive as soon as OnOff enters its 'On' state. Qiwi remarks, "I should have been there."
    • Every so often, she learns the horrible truth about her situation — particularly the scene where she stumbles upon a recording of Thomas Nau enjoying torturing her mother to death — just to have her mind wiped. Again and again and again.
  • Brown Note: A Justified example comes up in the first and third books. Because an individual Tine is made up of multiple lupine creatures, their equivalent of "brain function" is facilitated by sounds emitted from their bodies at hypersonic frequencies. Anything that interferes with these sounds literally impairs their brain function and can even "kill" the pack, if not the individual members. Examples of this include inclement weather (especially fog or snow; packs must stay bunched closer together to maintain their "mindsounds"), or being too close to another pack (imagine trying to maintain cohesive thought with another brain overlapping your own). There are two prominent examples of the latter:
    • "The Tropical Choir", or "the Choir", is a region full of millions or billions of "singletons" where packs simply cannot survive, due to the neverending saturation of deafening mindsounds. Even humans will notice the normally-inaudible mindsounds as a tangible "buzzing".
    • "Wolves", whose Name is Suddenly Changed to "weasels" in the third book, deliberately use this as a hunting technique, since most lifeforms on Tines World are some sort of Hive Mind or pack-mind that rely on high-frequency "mindsounds" for higher brain function. Wolves/weasels flood their vicinity with high- and mid-frequency screeching during a hunt, which induces panic and chaos in other creatures and, in extreme cases, can totally drown out mindsounds, functionally "killing" an affected pack.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit":
    • A Deepness in the Sky has a classic example in the Spiders, which are somewhat arachnoid, but in no way related to real spiders. In this case, it's somewhat justified; the humans needed to call the Spiders something, and the Spiders' own language is The Unintelligible, so using their own word for the species isn't possible.
    • The Children of the Sky has an example dramatically Lampshaded by Johanna's confusion when she first encounters them and has the name explained to her. "Wolves" (which get a Sudden Name Change to "weasels" in the third book, though the trope applies to both names) on Tines World are screeching, gerbil-sized, Hive Mind fur balls. note  The name is Justified by the fact that the Tines presumably already had a name for them, but had to come up with something that is pronounceable by human mouths; when the Tines start to learn English, they name the creatures "wolves" based on descriptions of wolves they have read in human histories: They hunt in packs, they are dangerously intelligent but not sentient, they're vicious, and they will fuck you up. They also induce terror and chaos in their victims—by emitting sounds that literally interfere with Tinish brain function. No real explanation is given for "weasels", though.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: Plenty of examplesnote , but one of the strongest examples in the trilogy occurs when Beyonders trapped in the Slow Zone start referring to it sullenly as "Down Here".
  • Cassandra Truth: Flenser invokes this trope during the climax of A Fire Upon the Deep when he reveals Steel's true plans to Amdijefri, though given how cunning he is, it's questionable exactly how much of what he's saying is actually truth.
    Flenser: You don't believe me? That's funny. Once upon a time I was such a good liar; I could talk the fish right into my mouths. But now, when only the truth will work, I can't convince you.
  • The Chessmaster: In Children of the Sky, Vendacious returns and pulls a Dragon Ascendant between books to have a go at a bit of the old game.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Just about all significant villains engage in treachery and double-dealing, but the most prominent example is Vendacious. You're kind of a record setter for treason aren't you..., indeed.
  • Consummate Liar: The old Flenser once was this, noting at one point that his previous self could have convinced a fish to swim right into his mouth, but during the story he's no longer able to maintain his facade consistently, thanks to Tyrathect's influence. After his new personality settles in, he manages to convince Vendacious — who is another example of this trope, by the way — into letting him participate in the latter's top secret operation (just to disrupt them), and convinces one of Woodcarver's key underlings to return him the remaining fragment of Steel, while faking his death. That despite old Flenser's Chronic Backstabbing Disorder being well-known to everyone. Good thing that his Heel–Face Turn was genuine.
  • Covers Always Lie: A mild example. A Fire Upon the Deep describes the Tines as packs of lupine creatures, but also says that they look as much like rodents as they do canines. Their faces are not quite lupine, and their necks are long enough to make them look truly alien; Johanna in particular thinks they look like rats. But the art on the Tor hardcover edition of The Children of the Sky discards these distinctions and depicts a pack of wolves.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: In A Fire Upon the Deep, there's a galaxy-spanning Usenet-like network where various aliens discuss the crisis, from a number of different perspectives. One particular alien, "Twirlip of the Mists", is talking through several layers of auto-translation software on an extremely low-bandwidth connection, so most of what it says sounds rather bizarre. It's pretty much all exactly right, though, including such apparent nonsense as "hexapodia is the key insight" since the Skroderiders have six wheels and are in fact the sleeper agents of the Blight that Twirlip was speculating about.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Pham Nuwen in A Deepness in the Sky. For centuries he has been collecting the most advanced technologies from around the galaxy for his own personal arsenal of tricks. He put secrets into the standard design and equipment of Qeng Ho ships that nobody else knows about, and which have layers of innocuous disguises.
  • Cute Is Evil: A Fire Upon the Deep has the Aprahanti species. They are humanoid with soft features, big round eyes, butterfly wings, soft downy fur, and cute sing-song voices. They are also militaristic fascists who make their first appearance pushing around a shopkeeper and later take a flimsy pretext to attempt genocide on humanity.
  • Danger in the Galactic Core: The laws of physics vary based on distance from the center of the galaxy, and can be divided into Zones of Thought due to the fact that the farther out you go, the more technology is possible. The innermost Zone—the galactic core—is known as the Unthinking Depths, because the laws of physics there are so restrictive that conscious thought isn't even possible—upon entering the Depths, most sentient life forms would simply die immediately due to their brains shutting down.
  • Darkest Hour: All three books have them.
    • In A Fire Upon the Deep it's the total extermination of Sjandra Kei, with Ravna helplessly watching aboard the OOB II.
    • In A Deepness in the Sky it's the collision and canceling out of Pham Newen's and Sherkaner's Batman Gambits, which results in the destruction of Sherkaner's home, and ultimately (?) Sherkaner himself.
    • In Children of the Sky it's when Amdi is tossed, member by member, from Vendacious' airship, in full view of Ravna and Jef. Only several chapters later is it revealed that it wasn't Amdi that was defenestrated, but Vendacious.
  • Deceptive Disciple: Flenser was Woodcarver's offspring/creation and most brilliant disciple, until the nature of his experiments was revealed. Some characters including Flenser!Tyrathect even call out Woodcarver for creating such a monster and then just letting him go.
  • Downer Ending: If you read both A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, you realize that at the end of A Deepness in the Sky, Pham Nuwen points his fleet towards the unthinking depths of the galaxy, where (most likely) everyone dies in a futile attempt to learn the wonders of the galaxy — which happen to lie in the opposite direction. Pham Nuwen gets reassembled thirty thousand years later.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Steel represents shades of just about every variant of this. Before the events of A Fire Upon the Deep, he was a Dragon with an Agenda bordering on The Starscream to nominal Big Bad Flenser, but by the time the story starts, he is a Dragon Ascendant who took over after Flenser left to invade a neighboring territory. In an amusing reversal, Flenser returns early in the book, weakened, and fulfills the exact same roles to Steel while he schemes to regain his power.
  • Dramatic Irony: The end of A Deepness in the Sky. Such dramatic irony. Pham has stumbled onto the secret of the galaxy's construction, except he has it backwards. Oops.
  • Dug Too Deep: In A Fire Upon the Deep, data-archaeologists dig too deeply into an ancient digital archive and unleash the Blight, a sort of godlike computer virus that eats minds.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Wars in Beyond are fought with antimatter bombs and relativistic-speed kinetic projectiles, so these do happen.
    "She knew about antimatter bombs and relativistic kinetic energy slugs. From a distance such weapons were bright spots of light, sometimes an orchestrated flickering. Or closer, a world-wrecker would glow incandescent across the curve of a planet, splashing the globe itself like a drop of water, but slow, slow."
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Straumli Perversion from A Fire Upon the Deep, also known as the Blight, is a kind of computer virus capable of running on biological platforms (e.g., a kind of Puppeteer Parasite that can hijack sentient creatures). Apparently, the most literal description of the Blight is that it's just very unique code, but in practice, it's a billions-of-years-old virus capable of infecting and controlling the entire galaxy—people, machines, and all.
  • Emperor Scientist: Woodcarver is a benevolent version, his/her former disciple Flenser is a malevolent one.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: Within the lower Zones. Earth is located in the "slow zone", where physics works as we currently understand it (i.e. faster-than-light travel is impossible, no such thing as anti-gravity, etc). Further out is called "The Beyond", where things like FTL travel and Artificial Intelligence become possible. Farthest is "The Transcend", a zone where magic and science lose any distinction and you have things like powerful A.I.s becoming akin to gods.
  • Enigmatic Empowering Entity: In A Fire Upon the Deep, Old One is never seen or spoken to directly, instead communicating with the protagonists through Pham Nuwen, who it uses as a sort of avatar. Old One allegedly created Pham Nuwen (though it's later revealed that it actually just found his remains and reconstituted him), who ends up being instrumental in the climax of the novel, and it also provides the protagonists the impetus they need to go to Tines World, but very little information about it is ever actually revealednote 
  • Evilutionary Biologist: Flenser, sort of. The science on his world isn't nearly advanced enough to provide knowledge of genetics, but unique physiology of his race and complete lack of anything resembling morals or empathy allowed him to get really, uh, creative with literally constructing his subjects to his specifications.
  • Exact Words: In The Children of the Sky, Nevil Storherte stages a coup and removes Ravna from power, then demands that she hand over system administrator access to the Out of Band II's computer network. She immediately does so. She doesn't mention until later that she still has "Command Privilege" by virtue of being the ship's captain.
    Johanna: So ... what does sysadmin mean?
    Ravna: Literally, bureaucratic control over the Oobii's automation. The thing that Nevil didn't understand is that Oobii is a ship. It must have a captain, and the captain's command must exist independent of administration.
  • Ex-Big Bad: In The Children of the Sky, Flenser is working with the protagonists, following his Heel-Face Turn at the end of A Fire Upon the Deep. Also, the pack Screwfloss is revealed late in the story to actually be the remains of Lord Steel, disguised and rearranged with a new member or two. He's still not the nicest fellow, but he seems to have undergone a Heel–Face Turn since escaping from the Fragmentarium, a sanctuary for fragmented packs.
  • Exposition Beam: "Godshatter" is basically a really intense Exposition Beam, except that when God puts everything he knows inside the brain of a Puny Mortal, it tends to turn out unpleasantly for the mortal.
  • Expy: Based on the Tines' World's level of technological development in A Fire Upon the Deep, Woodcarver is essentially based on Queen Elizabeth I, and Pilgrim is an explorer similar to Walter Raleigh or Francis Drake. Flenser and Steel occupy a position in history analogous to Oliver Cromwell, but they're more explicitly intended to parallel Hitler and Stalin. ("Stalin" literally means "Steel")
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: In A Fire Upon the Deep, ships use the "stutter drive" variant — a Jump Drive that makes (comparatively) short jumps, but at a rate of many jumps each second, resulting in a seemingly smooth journey for the passengers. This shapes space combat in the setting — warships maneuver by trying to synchronize or de-synchronize their jumps with those of nearby enemy ships. Because of the Zones, how quickly the drive works — and whether it works at all — depends on where in the Galaxy one attempts to use it.
  • Fantastic Racism: Both of the main villains in The Children of the Sky are racist towards each other's respective races. This, curiously, does not stop them from cooperating.
  • Fantasy World Map: A Fire Upon the Deep has a map of the galaxy done in fantasy style. It includes a delineation of the "Zones of Thought", which regulate FTL travel, as well as the path the protagonists' ship takes.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • Being controlled by the Blight.
    • Becoming Focused is only better than being turned into the Blight's appendage insofar as you are at least no longer capable of understanding the horror of your situation.
    • Ritser Brughel's final fate in A Deepness in the Sky. At the end he's the only human at the disposal of the Spiders, so they're going to keep him alive as long as possible to run tests on him. And he's arachnophobic.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Master villains can be distinguished by ability to be charming and polite up to the moment the Cold-Blooded Torture starts, and maybe even after, while inferior underlings and pretenders have trouble hiding their true nature.
    • Tomas Nau in A Deepness in the Sky fooled everyone, including remnants of the faction which he backstabbed and almost wiped out in cold blood, for decades with his nice guy act.
    • The old Flenser in the backstory of A Fire Upon the Deep, besides being a Consummate Liar, was the sort of guy who becomes more friendly when he's about to put you through the experiments that earned him his name.
  • Fiction As Coverup: In A Deepness in the Sky, the Emergents and Qeng Ho take a ship down to Arachna's surface, and they need to run their very bright afterburners for several thousand seconds in order to decelerate safely. They don't want the planet-bound Spiders to immediately realize a spaceship is landing, so they spam the planetary network with outlandish reports of yetis and nuclear explosions and, indeed, alien spacecraft, to discredit the few legitimate reports from official sources that realize a spacecraft has been sighted. (By the time they are ready to visit the planet, they have broken virtually all the Spiders' cryptologic communication, and they can send messages over secure networks as well as public, which explains why Spider facilities can't just communicate on private, trusted networks.)
  • Fighting from the Inside: A rare villainous example. Flenser struggles to suppress personality traits of Tyrathect and take complete control over their Hive Mind. He fails without realizing it, but gaining a conscience proves to be not a bad thing after all.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: A justified, and more or less unintentional, instance of this trope in audio format. Since everything in the Tines' Starfish Language is Unpronounceable (but at least partially intelligible) to humans, they can't technically speak human languages. However, their tympana are also capable of reproducing just about any sound in the audible range (and many outside of it). They take advantage of this to communicate with humans by reproducing specific human voices, which occasionally gets a little disturbing.
    • Several characters also take advantage of this trope over radio to impersonate other characters.
  • Gambit Pileup: In A Deepness in the Sky, Sherkaner Underhill and Pham Nuwen accidentally steamroll each other with their simultaneous Batman Gambits, giving Nau an opening to execute his own plan and nearly kill them all. He fails, but at the possible cost of Sherkaner and his wife's life, as well as many of his friends and staffers.
  • Gender Bender: A borderline example, since the Tines don't really have a physical sex, but in the Backstory, Woodcarver identified as a male. By the time the story starts, she identifies as female, to the surprise of several old acquaintances who haven't seen her in some time. Also a half-hidden example of Women Are Wiser, as it's lightly implied this is the reason for the change.
  • Giant Spider: A Deepness in the Sky features a whole race of them, and they think humans are absolutely adorable. Our big, googly eyes remind them of their own children.
  • Gut Punch: The series as a whole is too dark and violent to get much darker, but taking The Children of the Sky as a single work, most of the "evil" going on is either safely offscreen or nonviolent. Nevil Storherte, the most prominent of the Big Bad trio, spends most of the story coming across as a seditious and weaselly but charismatic manipulator. He never quite seems like the type to condone violence except in necessary situations, and since he's the Big Bad, it seems likely that the story's conflict will remain mostly political... until, near the end of the book, he fires an explosive Wave-Motion Gun into a crowd of civilians in an attempt to kill a target who might be there. Shortly thereafter, he privately laments the deaths... and blames them on his intended target for maybe being there.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: In A Fire Upon the Deep, when Scriber discovers a weak point in Woodcarver's security and points it out to her intelligence chief — who turns out to be the double agent who created and makes use of the weak point.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Flenser!Tyrathect — there was quite a room for doubt about his sincerity, to be honest, but so far it sticks. Similarly, Steel, or at least his remaining part. A number of lower-caste Emergents might count, although they weren't really evil (rather than brainwashed and manipulated) to begin with.
  • Hive Mind: A whole species consisting of micro-Hive Minds in A Fire Upon the Deep. The Tropical Choir in The Children of the Sky is an enormous, but very scatterbrained example.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The villains of the series all get one, despite all being savvy.
    • In A Fire Upon the Deep, the Blight gets hoisted on a galactic scale by Countermeasure with the help of two Straumers, whose clumsy conspiracy it had written off as beneath its notice. Moreover, this only becomes possible because the Blight decides to murder the Old One just in case, when the latter was about to let it mind its own business. Lord Steel's army is defeated despite its vastly superior weaponry, because he had grown excessively reliant on intelligence from Vendacious, who got caught and was forced to lead Steel into a trap; then he is done in by Flenser!Tyrathect, whom he considered wholly inferior and safe to use, due to containing merely 1/3rd of former Flenser.
    • In A Deepness in the Sky, Tomas Nau is done in by Qiwi, remembering for one final time her mother's rape and murder.
    • In Children of the Sky, Vendacious is defenestrated from his own airship by those he tortured and used most mercilessly — Mr. Radio and Amdi.
  • Human Popsicle:
    • Used by the Qeng Ho in A Deepness in the Sky, so they can survive the several century long voyages on their ramscoop ships.
    • Spacefarers in the Beyond also commonly install the technology on ships expecting to go into the Low Beyond. If the Zones shift and they get trapped in the Slow Zone without FTL, the crew can at least go into coldsleep and hopefully drift back into the Beyond, albeit a few million years later.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: A large part of A Fire Upon the Deep is dedicated to this. Even though the human refugees ran into probably the most brilliant and scientific-minded Tines on the planet, the latter had serious problems figuring how these "alien creatures" tick.
  • I Choose to Stay: At the end of A Deepness in the Sky, when all of the Focused are being deFocused in stages, Trixia Bonsol is partially deFocused — enough to be self-sufficient and regain her personality — and insists that the process be halted. Being continually Focused on Spider culture for something like 50 years has given her a sense of identity as a Spider, and she feels that complete deFocusing would rob her of that identity.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: In A Fire Upon the Deep, humans have been out in the galaxy so long that Earth is merely a legend; the origin planet most humans feel emotionally attached to is called Nyjora — meaning New Earth.
  • Intro-Only Point of View: The prologue of A Fire Upon the Deep is mostly told from the viewpoint of the nascent Straumli Perversion as it rapidly gains sentience, though a small portion of it is also told from the viewpoint of several other nascent AIs in the same network.
  • It's All About Me: The true core of Emergents' ruling caste approach to life, as explained by Tomas Nau, but relentless, single-minded selfishness is probably the most defining trait of Vinge's villains in general.
  • Karmic Death: Tomas Nau raped and murdered Qiwi's mother, then brainwashed her into being his lover for something like 50 years. In the climax, Qiwi shoots him in the genitals with a wire-gun, a weapon designed specifically to cause as much damage to organic tissue as possible. Oh, and then he dies.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: A Deepness in the Sky has two mild examples. There is some foreshadowing of the relationships involved, but it's still pretty sudden.
    • Pham and Anne spend most of the book trying to outmaneuver and ultimately murder each other, but when Anne is deFocused, she and Pham become an item in less than a page.
    • Pham ships Ezr off with Qiwi within twenty pages of the end of the book, and Ezr apparently has no problem with this. In his case, it's especially jarring because Ezr has spent literally the entire book up to this point faithfully waiting on the Focused Trixia, only to be flat-out rejected by her once she is partially deFocused, because she no longer feels like a human. Flip a page or two, and suddenly Ezr and Qiwi are a thing.
  • Laugh Track: Strangely invoked. The Tines can only communicate with humans by reproducing the sounds of human voices, since their native tongue is The Unpronounceable. But since they can reproduce virtually any audible frequency (and many inaudible ones), they can speak in multiple voices simultaneously or even, Johanna notes, provide their own laugh track.
    Honking laughter backed up Harmony's words. Tines could do that, provide their own audio accompaniment. Mostly it was cute, but then there was Harmony Redjackets.
  • Let No Crisis Go to Waste: The fleet in A Deepness in the Sky plans to play this straight but with good intentions, but then Manipulative Bastard Tomas Nau exaggerates it even further, with terrible intentions. A large part of the book is dedicated to exploring the inevitable patterns that always arise in intelligent civilizations; namely, that they self-destruct, especially when they develop nuclear weaponry for the first time. So when the Exiled fleet in secret orbit around the Spider planet almost annihilate themselves in space warfare, they decide that they'll need to conserve their remaining resources until the Spiders inevitably start a nuclear war amongst themselves. Then they can Save the World and use that act to foster positive relations with the Spiders, to trade, and to rebuild their own technology as well as improve that of the Spiders. Things get complicated, and much darker, when it is revealed that Nau's actual plan is to wait for the war to start, then black out communications across the planet, hijack and redirect the nukes to cause as much damage as possible to population centers and seats of government, nearly annihilate the Spiders and blast their technology back to the Stone Age, then enslave the survivors.
  • Like a Duck Takes to Water: Pham Nuwen starts out as a medieval prince on a human planet that has lost spacefaring technology. He then has to adapt to life as a programmer-at-arms after his planet is visited by traders from another human civilization, and computers, travel between stars and life extension become commonplace. Millennia after, his corpse is unfrozen and he is confronted by a world where faster-than-light travel, antigravity, and thousands of civilizations of sentient beings, including godlike powers are a reality.
  • Long Game: At the end of A Fire Upon the Deep, the Blight's fleet has been trapped lightyears away from Tines World, but it's still coming. In The Children of the Sky, Ravna is frantically trying to develop the technology that will allow them to defend themselves or at least escape, but she knows that the humans need to dedicate their resources to certain types of technology, to the exclusion of more immediate concerns like anti-aging and technology that will keep them comfortable. Unfortunately, all of the other humans were children in an extremely comfortable society, so they resent this. Ravna's single-minded focus on the Long Game and her mistaken belief that everyone else understands this is what allows Nevil Storherte to stage a political coup, portraying her as unreasonably obsessed with the Blight and removing her from power.
  • Lost Colony: Several are mentioned in A Deepness in the Sky, where due to technological limitations and no Faster-Than-Light Travel colonies are quite easy to lose.
  • Lost Technology: Archaeologist programmers seek miraculous technologies left behind in archives by species who have gone extinct or Transcended. Unfortunately just like the contemporary Internet there are the associated problems of viruses, malware, translation errors, and propaganda that can have disastrous consequences when the technology sought is often more sentient than the races seeking to use it. The first novel opens when a human expedition from Straumli Realm realises too late that they've released a Sealed Evil in a Can.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: Seems to be the favorite form of combat in Beyond, from handguns that fire seemingly endless amounts of guided missiles, to swarms of jump-capable smart missiles in starship battles.
  • The Madness Place: In A Deepness in the Sky, the Focus biovirus traps people in this as a permanent condition, so they can be used as brilliant but unquestioning drones for the Emergent dictatorship.
  • Meat Moss: A rare benevolent example occurs in A Fire Upon the Deep; the Old One filled one of the rooms of the Skroderider's ship with this. It turns out to be a complex biotech weapon used to combat the Blight.
  • The Milky Way Is the Only Way: All technology, including FTL travel, works better as you get farther from the galactic core. Intergalactic travel should be possible, except that the outer reaches of this galaxy are controlled by technological AIs who have ascended to near-godhood, and they don't let anyone past them.
  • Noodle Incident: Pham Nuwen is a living, unusually bleak example of this trope, after his failed voyage to the Unthinking Depths. In addition, there are many references to his single-handedly ending a civilization-ending pogrom in a matriachal civilization (Strentmannian) with a single warship. Exactly how he accomplishes this is never explained, other then dark innuendo about atrocities committed.
  • No Warping Zone: The lower Zones, where FTL travel is not permitted by the physical laws. Bad news for any ship from the Beyond that finds itself stranded in the Slow Zone.
  • Nothing Left to Do but Die: Civilizations that move from the Beyond to the Transcend routinely go through The Singularity into incomprehensible digital forms (Powers) whose interaction with the Beyond rarely lasts more than ten years; it is unknown whether they die of boredom, burn out or wind down, or merely lose interest in the limited people of the Beyond and move further out. However, a Transcendent Power can in one month evolve more than humans in ten thousand years, so that comes out to something like a million years subjective time, if such a comparison has any meaning. Yes, they get very bored, judging by the actions of a Power called The Old One in A Fire Upon the Deep.
  • Nuke 'em: How the mad governance of Tarelsk tries to deal with Qeng Ho fleet. It fails, but kills billions in the process.
  • Otherworldly and Sexually Ambiguous: Since the Tines are Hive Minds, they identify as either male or female, but they don't have a biological gender, strictly speaking. Their individual pack members do, and it's implied that a pack's gender identity is usually determined by the gender ratio of the individual members, as well as personal preference. note  Even the Tines themselves apparently can't always identify another's gender: Near the beginning of A Fire Upon the Deep, Pilgrim notes that he isn't quite sure whether Tyrathect identifies as a male or female. Although that may also be due to the originally-female Tyrathect secretly having a Split Personality with a male Enemy Within by the time the story starts. This is also foreshadowed in the following quote.
    Tyrathect claimed to be a school teacher, but somewhere in her (him? gender preference wasn't entirely clear yet) was a killer.
  • One-Steve Limit: averted with Johanna Olsndot and Johanna Haugen.
  • Performer Guise: Played with in The Children of the Sky. Ravna and company stumble onto a backwoods village loyal to Tycoon, one of the Big Bads. Their plan was to impersonate a noble and his entourage to get through without being hassled, but Ritl's Bad "Bad Acting" makes this unbelievable. Amdiranifani decides on the fly that the group is a traveling circus instead.
  • Physical God: Any Power from A Fire Upon the Deep. "Applied Theology" is one of the most important scientific disciplines in the Beyond.
  • Plant Aliens: The skrode-riders are plant aliens that travel around in mobile plant-pots.
  • Playing with Syringes: A Deepness in the Sky gleefully teeters on the fence between invoking this and playing it straight. In the Dénouement, while negotiating over what to do with the human POWs, the Spiders insist on keeping Ritser Brughel, unarguably the worst of the surviving war criminals, to themselves. When the humans concede that it would be fair to give him to the Spiders to be punished, the Spiders' response is something along the lines of, "Punish him? Oh, no. We just need a live experimental subject to help our studies of human physiology. Any 'punishment' would be strictly incidental."
  • Portmanteau Couple Name: In-Universe and Justified; their relationship isn't romantic, but Amdiranifani and Jefri become fast friends early on, and are near-inseparable for the rest of the series. In Tinish culture, a pack has two names, one of which is made up of the names of the individual pack members. Before long, people are almost considering Jefri a part of the pack—thus, people start referring to the team as Amdijefri.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: In A Deepness in the Sky, the Emergents' society is driven by the Focused; people who have had their brains reconfigured to make them obsessed with a certain subject, making them super-competent at that but unable to function in anything else, putting them in a sort of intellectual slavery. One of the main characters envisions using this to create the kind of orderly interstellar empire that, due to a lack of Faster-Than-Light Travel, has always fallen in the past, but in the end, realizes the human cost is too much.
  • Properly Paranoid: In A Deepness In The Sky: Being worried that aliens are getting to you through the internet isn't usually a good sign of mental health.
  • Puppy-Dog Eyes:
    • In A Fire Upon the Deep, there is a race of beautiful butterfly-people with huge shining eyes. They're genocidal fascists.
    • In A Deepness in the Sky, this is how humans look to the Giant Spiders, and they think it's unspeakably cute. The humans resemble baby Spiders, who only have two eyes. When they mature, most of their carapace becomes one large visual sensor. Even very hard-bitten, cynical Spiders were hard-pressed to resist that effect.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The Spiders have to learn some of this to progress their civilization on a homeworld orbiting the On-Off star.
  • Really 700 Years Old
    • In A Deepness in the Sky, the effects of relativity, advanced medicine and prosthetics allows people to live hundreds or thousands of years. Pham Nuwen, constantly travelling, is possibly the oldest of the Qeng Ho, living hundreds of years from his perspective and much, much longer from most other reference frames. That, and he shows up in A Fire Upon the Deepover thirty thousand years later.
    • A Fire Upon the Deep plays this straight with humans and many species of aliens (in fact, failure to uphold this trope on a low-tech world becomes a major plot point in the sequel), but inverts with Powers, which rarely exist for more than ten years, before losing interest in maintaining contact or changing unrecognizably.
    • The Hive Mind nature of the Tines means that an individual can incorporate new members as old ones die off, maintaining a continuous consciousness for many times the lifespan of an individual. Although it's not given how long a member would live, Woodcarver is over 600 years old and has seen glaciers advance and retreat over his/her lifetime. It eventually extracts a terrible price, though, as the only way to maintain one's identity after enough years is inbreeding within one's own members.
  • Recursive Canon: A Deepness in the Sky is partially recursive. It uses a Switching P.O.V. that alternates between chapters focusing on the humans lurking in orbit around Arachna and studying the Spiders, and chapters focusing on the Spiders themselves. Near the end of the book, it is revealed/heavily implied that all of the Spider-POV passages in the novel were written In-Universe by a human translator monitoring the Spiders' communications and directly communicating with one of them.
  • Renaissance Man:
    • Woodcarver excels in several form of fine arts and basically invented the scientific approach, revolutionizing much of Tines' culture. On top of that he/she is a competent politician and military leader, and apparently was a badass warrior in his/her younger days.
    • Pham Nuwen is a legendary trader, space navigator and politician, is very good at Slow Zone-level programming, and is as badass as they come, particularly when not undermined by advanced age.
  • Robots Think Faster: As the nascent Straumli Perversion wakes up in A Fire Upon the Deep, it experiences time passing slower and slower at exponential rates, eventually noting that a minute seems to last longer than all the time it has existed up to that point (which is at least several days).
  • Rock Beats Laser: Massively averted in A Fire Upon the Deep, where one civilian with a high-tech sidearm nearly wipes out a whole regiment of troops with medieval weapons and is only killed when natives use a primitive flamethrower.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Averted with distance, and the aversion is one of the biggest reasons why civilizations in the Beyond avoid going anywhere near the Slow Zone.
    • It's discussed at one point in A Fire Upon the Deep that if the Zones shift and the Out of Band II finds itself in the Slow Zone, where Faster-Than-Light Travel is impossible, the crew will most likely end up stranded alone in interstellar space for the rest of their short, uneventful lives — even if it happens in the middle of a firefight. The distances involved in close ship-to-ship combat are still so great that without FTL, they would suddenly be separated by centuries or millennia of travel.
    • In another notable aversion, ships expecting to go to near the Slow Zone are equipped with coldsleep technology. If they accidentally find themselves stuck in the Slow Zone, they can go into coldsleep and hopefully drift back into the Beyond before too many millions of years have passed.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: In A Fire Upon the Deep, the Blight/Straumli Perversion is a program inside a multi-billion year old archive, let loose by unwitting archaeologists.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Ultimately, despite all the suffering and sacrifices, closer to the idealistic end of the scale.
  • Space Is Magic: The laws of physics as we know them only hold in the local Zone; farther out, the laws of physics change and things become commonplace that would be impossible marvels on Earth.
  • Space Nomads: In A Deepness in the Sky, the Qeng Ho traders are a loose collective of interstellar traders that travel via slower-than-light ramscoop-powered sleeper starships. The Qeng Ho hold that if they start to use the local time system (days/months/years) instead of their UNIX-time based system (seconds, kiloseconds megaseconds, etc), they've been in the system for too long.
  • Starfish Aliens: At least one species in each book, with extensively thought-out biology and culture. Still weirder beings are hinted at in A Fire Upon the Deep. In a partial subversion of the common use of this trope, despite extreme differences in physical makeup, all encountered races can understand each other and coexist. Only hyperintelligent Powers are truly different, and even they are only hyperintelligent, not truly transcendent and ineffable.
  • Staying Alive: It is unclear whether The Blight retained some self-awareness, even after being submerged into the Slow Zone, or just cooked up complicated programs for its fleet right before that, but said fleet is certainly alive and still intending to nuke the Countermeasure, alongside with the Tines' world, as soon as it gets there. Which might be far sooner than anyone's worst predictions.
  • Stealth Pun: The sentient Tines are made up of multiple individual creatures that come together to form a single, coherent personality. The members usually have meaningless names that are combined to form the pack's full name note . In The Children of the Sky, Woodcarver gets a new member, a puppy named "Sht", who is considered by several characters to be a bad influence on her overall mind. The pun gets less stealthy when Pilgrim starts referring to the puppy as "that little Sht".
  • Sudden Name Change: A strange one considering the meticulousness of the author, but the "wolves" of A Fire Upon the Deep are suddenly and inexplicably "weasels" by the time The Children of the Sky rolls around. Doubly strange, as "wolves" was a Justified use of Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit" that no longer makes sense with "weasels".
  • The Slow Path: In A Deepness in the Sky, Thomas Nau spends no time in hibernation, so he ages faster than everyone else.
  • Tap on the Head: Completely averted in The Children of the Sky. The blow that knocks out Ravna is treated completely realistically, with various debilitating aftereffects until she gets advanced medical treatment.
  • Time Dissonance: Due to Robots Think Faster. As the nascent Straumli Perversion wakes up in A Fire Upon the Deep, it experiences time passing slower and slower at exponential rates, eventually noting that a minute seems to last longer than all the time it has existed up to that point (which is at least several days).
  • Title Drop: In A Deepness in the Sky, the Spiders periodically hibernate in deep, well-insulated pockets called "deepnesses", which are necessary for their survival. At one point, Sherkaner Underhill is hypothesizing space travel, and claims that "there is a deepness in the sky, and it goes on forever."
  • Tomato Surprise: In A Fire Upon the Deep, the early parts with Peregrine as a viewpoint character focus on the details he finds interesting and don't mention details that he considers to go without saying, allowing the reader to picture him and his traveling companions as humanoid by default for quite a while before it turns out they're really, really not.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Scriber. He dodges this trope at the very beginning, thanks to sheer luck, but it catches up with him the next time he tries to be useful. Played for tragedy, instead of humor particularly as without his well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out actions all the good guys would have been ultimately doomed. Either time.
  • Translation Convention: The spider sections of A Deepness in the Sky are written by human researchers, using this.
  • Troll: Flenser-Tyrathect apparently channels his residual sadistic impulses by getting a rise out of people. He picks underlings with similar inclinations too.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: A justifiably partial example occurs in The Children of the Sky. What's left of Steel is disguised as Screwfloss using fake dyed pelt-markings, but when one of his members is killed, he loses some cognitive capacity, which causes him to be lax in keeping the disguise maintained.
  • Ungovernable Galaxy: In A Deepness in the Sky, there is no FTL travel or FTL communication, so solar systems are effectively isolated. Coupled with the extreme cost and next to zero returns from constructing the Ram Scoop interstellar spacecraft, there are only two interstellar societies - the largely fragmented Qeng Ho traders, and the Emergents (who have only been around for a short time). Most societies break down after a few hundred years from stagnation courtesy of the physics of the inner Milky Way preventing high-tech equipment like nanotechnology, faster than light travel or true artificial intelligence from working - all of which make interstellar empires possible in A Fire Upon the Deep which is set near intergalactic space, where the laws of physics are more forgiving.
  • The Virus: The Blight. It can overtake whole civilizations at lightning speed, by infecting and assimilating their computer systems. It also can overtake living beings and turn them into its meat puppets. Normally, this takes High Beyond technology, but in the Low Beyond, it custom-created a race billions of years ago that can be instantly subverted at any distance — the Skroderiders.
  • War for Fun and Profit: A Deepness in the Sky plays this pretty straight... and then exaggerates the hell out of it. A large part of the book is dedicated to exploring the inevitable patterns that always arise in intelligent civilizations; namely, that they self-destruct, especially when they develop nuclear weaponry for the first time. So when the Exiled fleet in secret orbit around the Spider planet almost annihilate themselves in space warfare, they decide that they'll need to conserve their remaining resources until the Spiders inevitably start a nuclear war amongst themselves. Then they can Save the World and use that act to foster positive relations with the Spiders, to trade, and to rebuild their own technology as well as improve that of the Spiders. Things get complicated when it is revealed that Manipulative Bastard Tomas Nau's actual plan is to wait for the war to start, then black out communications across the planet, hijack and redirect the nukes to cause as much damage as possible to population centers and seats of government, nearly annihilate the Spiders and blast their technology back to the Stone Age, then enslave the survivors.
  • Wham Line: Several in the books. A couple examples:
    • In A Deepness in the Sky: "It's all messed up now". When Sherkaner, half-blind and in shock, realizes that he and Pham Nuwen's Gambit Pileup have canceled one other out, costing the lives of almost all his assistants, staffers, and family.
    • In Children of the Sky, "They're Rider larvae, Jef," revealing Tycoon's "cuttlefish" as Skroderider larvae. Very shortly thereafter, she realizes that Greenstalk is among the adult Skroderiders in the colony, making it a double Wham Line. Oddly, this changes the plot not at all, save for one key thing: keeping Ravna and Jef out of Vendacious' claws.
  • Whatevermancy: It's not used for prophecy, but in A Deepness in the Sky, the early attempts of the Spiders at electronics displays can only produce a limited range of colors. Many Spiders assume that a display capable of reproducing their entire visible spectrum would be impossible to construct, and derisively call the idea "videomancy". Of course, they later develop displays capable of producing their entire visible spectrum, including infrared and ultraviolet "colors".
  • Xenofiction: The sections from the viewpoint of the Tines and the Spiders.
  • The X of Y: Multiple:
    • The series name.
    • The last book, The Children of the Sky.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Pham is one of Tomas Nau's role-models.
  • Zero-G Spot: Multiple, involving the problem of obtaining leverage during zero-g sex.
    • Mentioned in A Deepness In The Sky.
    • One of the protagonists in A Fire Upon The Deep thinks that zero-g sex isn't what it's cracked up to be, mainly due to that.

Alternative Title(s): A Fire Upon The Deep, A Deepness In The Sky, The Children Of The Sky