The OnOff star is a mystery – a normal sun for around 40 years, then it turns off for the next 200, on a predictable cycle. Remarkably, intelligent life exists on the system’s only planet – the Spiders, a civilization on the cusp of a technological revolution and spaceflight. This draws the attention of two groups, both of which send fleets. The Qeng Ho are a loosely affiliated group of traders, and the Emergent are a newly risen militaristic civilization, about which little is known.
The Qeng Ho derive their trader identity from Pham Nuwen, himself a native of a medieval world and taken in by a group of early Qeng Ho refugees. He quickly learns their ways and marvels at the speedy rise and fall of civilizations across the inhabited worlds. This cycle is very rapid indeed to traders hibernating in cryosleep for hundreds of years at a time, while their ships travel at slower than light speeds to their next destination. He figures that the traders are perfectly positioned to try to ameliorate the suffering of failed civilizations, as well as preserve the best technology produced by civilizations at their peak. The Qeng Ho freely broadcast some of their knowledge continuously, as a way to bootstrap fallen civs back to the top. They strive to build up civs back to prosperity, because it is a good ideal itself and also (more importantly?) because it sets up a good market for trading.
But Pham sees a way to have more – he envisions the Qeng Ho itself as an interstellar governing empire, with ability to prevent civilization collapse in the first place. As he builds up support for his ideas, he calls for a meeting of Qeng Ho at a place called Brisgo Gap. Just as he is about to clinch victory, he is betrayed by his wife, Sura. (While Pham has been traveling and thus is still in his prime, Sura who managed things at home, is many centuries old by now, and many of his descendants are physically older than Pham. Weird.) She opposes him because … “it’ll never work! You’d need an army of loving slaves!” (groan … that’s not a reason! And such lame forced foreshadowing…) Pham is forced into exile – put into a ship bound for a target several hundred lightyears away, and he fades from history. An incognito Pham may or not end up in the Qeng Ho expedition to the OnOff star (spoiler: he does!), still bent on achieving his empire one way or another…
Ok, so the Emergents are Not Very Nice. They co-opted a brain virus to serve as a form of mind control, called Focus. The Focused individuals can be tuned to a specific set of tasking, and they obsessively perform their tasks with superhuman attention and ability. For instance, a key character in the story is a Focused translator of the Spider language. Coupled with traditional computer systems, Focus gives the Emergents effectively all the sought-for benefits of nearly unlimited AI, except without the “A” part I guess. And only at the cost of mental enslavement of many individuals! Most of the non-Focused Emergents serve in roles managing the Focused chattel.
When the Qeng Ho and Emergent expeditions meet in the OnOff system, it’s not long before the Qeng Ho are double-crossed, mostly afflicted with the Focus virus, and sneak-attacked. When it’s all done, all the ships on both sides are incapacitated and only a few habitats and supplies remain out in L1 orbit. Emergents and Qeng Ho are forced to live and work together for survival, although the Qeng Ho are clearly the conquered, and the morally bankrupt, manipulative Emergent leader Tomas Nau takes charge.
The survivors strategy is to “lurk” out in space, and wait for the rapidly progressing Spider civilization to mature to the point where the spacers can reveal themselves and receive help (Qeng Ho: by trading! Emergents: no, by force of course) from a capable industrial base in fixing up their ships. The OnOff star flares back to life shortly after the Qeng Ho-Emergent battle.
When the OnOff star turns back on, its solar output is extremely elevated for a short (a few weeks or months? years?) duration. This turns the Spider planet into a fireball, destroying most of what was created by the previous generation. The Spiders themselves stay safe, however, as they retreated two centuries ago to hibernation (ha! just like the spacers on their long voyages!) in their deep underground shelters, the “deepnesses,” when the star turned off and air-freezing temperatures ensued.
Much like Vinge did in the previous book, the Spider’s story is told in alternating sequence with the spacers; and although quite alien in ways they also seem very familiar and even … lovable? Yes. Lovable, monstrous, giant spiders. Sherkaner Underhill is a Spider technological genius who guides most of his civilization’s progress, including a determination to find a way to live, awake, right through the Dark. As the spacers observe Spider progress from their far-away orbit, they are able to subtlety alter events by injecting data at opportune times into the Spider computer networks. <spoiler>In a twist, Sherkaner catches on eventually that aliens are out there, manipulating things, and sets up a great “counterlurk” — while everyone thinks he’s gone a little bit senile, he and his team secretly gain control over the spacer systems via the Focused translators, and in the end avert Tomas Nau’s war of conquest. Pham also sees the light and realizes that even his dream of empire is not worth the moral price of Focus slavery – now he works out a plan to free the Focuses, first in the OnOff system but with plans at the end of the book to carry on the fight at the Emergent homeworlds.</spoiler>
Definitely a theme of the rise and fall of civilizations going on in this book. First there’s the Qeng Ho’s observations of the inevitable fleeting nature of human governments, when viewed on cosmic timescales. (This reminded me of a similar treatment in “House of Suns“.) Then there are the Spiders, forced to rebuild their own world anew with each lighting of the OnOff star.
This is probably the most far-out, wildest sci-fi future history I’ve ever read. The singularity has occurred, and then some. It is many, many thousands of years in the future and people are pretty much immortal. Minds may be transferred with total accuracy between biological brains and machines. It’s hard to tell (for me; it’s a plot point in the book though that they are very different) where AI ends and humanity begins. There are a multitude of body types and even mind types; these are the new “races.” Invariants are totally logical, with a brain structure prohibiting anything else. On the opposite end, Warlocks are totally intuitive and spontaneous. There are large group-minds, which are throngs of people all joined together somehow into a single conciousness. There are Neptunians, which are big blue blobs that hang out in the atmosphere or out in the Kuiper belt.
Somewhat in charge of everything are the Sophotechs, incredibly advanced AI’s which guard over humanity. (At least, the ones who get mention in the book seem to care about us. Towards the end of the story, we realize that Saturn has been colonized by a huge number of Sophotechs doing who knows what.)
Fortunately for the reader, Phaeton is a member of the Silver-Gray school, which idolizes 19th century Britain as the epitomy of culture. Therefore a lot of his actions contain a familiar-enough reference frame for us poor, primitive readers. He has a pretty cool origin: he originally was a character in a simulation where he was a conquering warrior from a distant colony who destroyed the Earth. Somehow during the simulation he became self-aware (hey it can happen…?) and thus it would have been a crime to allow him to be deleted when the sim ended. So he got downloaded into a body and voila, new person. The simulation’s author, Helion, is therefore Phaeton’s father.
Helion is a Peer, one of the most powerful people in the system. He built a Solar Array to tame and control solar flares for useful purposes. Another Peer, Gannis, ignited Jupiter as a sort of second Sun and built a supercollider surrounding it, which allows the creation of exotic materials. Another Peer invented the technology which permits mind transfers and therefore functional immortality. These Peers are Big Stuff. Then there is Atkins, the only soldier left in a society that has evolved beyond physical wars. He’s kind of melancholy but at the same time wields the entire military arsenal of thousands of years and thousands of armies. (Although most of the “fights” in the book are handled in a split-second by dueling computer viruses or nanomachines.) Not one to mess around with.
Alright, so that’s a bit on the world building. Quite a complex society and difficult to grasp for us in the 21st century. Now the story. In the first book, Phaeton realizes he is missing memories and sets off to recover them. These lost memories are about his constructing a giant starship, the Phoenix Exultant, in order to begin colonizing the galaxy. The College of Horators, loosely the government, (the Sophotechs are in charge of the law and order type stuff) feel this is a bad idea, since some future colony may turn on its mother system. (Like the simulation which gave birth to Phaeton.) But Phaeton realizes that staying put in one system is a gradual death sentence; humanity must spread out, grow, and even be tested in order to meet its potential. (This line of thinking kind of reminded me of End of Eternity.)
In the second book, Phaeton gets exiled and has to make a comeback. The beginning of the book where he wanders the strange new Earth was much like the first part and I enjoyed it, but then there was kind of a strange change in style/tone. I kind of lost track of the plot, and some of the situations and dialog became more slapsticky which was kind of jarring.
Then in the third book, Phaeton has to face an invader from an older colony. Hmmm maybe those Horators’ fears were well placed. A long time ago, there was an expedition to Cygnus X1 which flourished for a time, but then seemed to destroy itself with great suffering. Turns out a rogue Sophotech-like being, the Nothing, from this “Silent Oecumene” is now poking about the Golden Oecumene. (That’s what the solar system/humanity is called. “oecumene (UK; Greek: οἰκουμένη, oikouménē, lit. “inhabited”) was an ancient Greek term for the known world, the inhabited world” Betcha didn’t know that.)
Ok, on to the third book… Lots of philosophy here. To defeat the bad guy super mind AI, Phaeton must …convince it that morality is absolute, not relative. Not exactly the set up for an action-packed swashbuckler. Throughout the third book, it is also hard to know who is lying – they catch the “big bad guy” about three times; each time it turns out he wasn’t really the big bad guy and there is someone else out there. But along the way they believe most of the previous big baddie’s story, even though they realize he was a fraud. Not sure why they thought they could trust anything he had said. It’s hard to follow the jumbled plot and philosophy in the third book; I’m not even sure what evil deed the Nothing was planning to do.
If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the first book, kind of the second, and not really the third. Overall, I liked the world building, but the plot not so much.
In this update, I was confusing myself with (0,0) being in the upper left corner of the screen, so I changed it so that (0,0) is at the center. No noticeable effect on the actual sim, but makes thinking about angles and things a little easier (for me). I also implemented the orbit point functionality – pretty easy because it uses the already created MoveToPoint function. I wanted to make the dots automatically space themselves evenly out along the orbit by speeding up if there is a dot close behind or slowing down if another dot is close in front, but couldn’t get it to work very well, so left that bit commented out.
I also redid MoveToPoint to be a better example of a PID controller. (I tried to implement the diagram found here, fig 6.7.) The gains now are set good enough for the default max velocity and acceleration; probably would need retuning if those are changed.
Download: smartdots_v0.2.zip. Prerequisites are Python and Pygame. Main script to run is smartdots.py. Controls are listed in the status area above the dot box; also run with the -h option to see all other command line options.
I’m not really sure where smart dots will go from here. “Avoid obstacles” is unimplemented, but after that I’m kind of out of ideas. It’s not really a game… I guess the “game” portion of this project was for me getting the dots to do what I want them to – it was kind of fun watching them move and orbit a point. (If you turn on orbit point, then move the action point around, there is some interesting behavior as the dots move while rotating…) But for now “development” on Smart Dots will probably be on hold, unless I can think of somewhere to go with it.