Shapes as biotech in Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep”

Just finished reading Vernor Vinge’s science fiction novel A Fire Upon the Deep, and I really enjoyed how Vinge plays with the idea that shapes impose a pattern on biology, and that space itself (space as in “length, breadth, and height”) is technology.

Much of the story takes place on a planet whose dominant species has evolved such that individuals are actually a collection of semi-autonomous units held together by a localized hive-mind. Each functioning individual Tine (the human name for the race) can consist of anywhere from 4 to 8 members. These members can rearrange themselves into various shapes with distinct characteristics, causing one native to quip, “Lines and rings are interesting people.”

Characteristics such as intelligence are influenced by how each Tine’s constituent members are spatially distributed. Shapes have a profound and immediate impact on the kinds of ideas that it is possible for a Tine to think:

Flenser had experimented with all the postures of thought. In the centuries before him, there has been only a few effective postures; the instinctive heads together, the ring sentry, various work postures. Flenser had tried dozen more: stars, double rings, grids. Most were useless and confusing. In the star, only a single member could hear all the others, and each could only hear the one. In effect, all thought had to pass through the hub member. The hub could contribute nothing rational, yet all its misconceptions passed uncorrected to the rest. Drunken foolishness resulted…

This talk of “postures of thought” and “stars, double rings, and grids” reminds me of operations engineers and network theorists - people who attempt to find the most optimal way to distribute signals and resources by creating specific spatial relationships, say, a layout scheme in an Amazon fulfillment warehouse that minimizes shipping time.

I love how Vinge explores the idea that the location of a thing in space is a powerful, organizing force that facilitates some interactions while frustrating certain others. This isn’t a new concept (what kind of mood is generated by a curved wall? How should a general deploy his soldiers across a field of combat to maximize the likelihood victory?) but in Vinge’s novel, the consequences of placement are more immediate, and so the concept of space-as-technology is more visible:

But at least one of the [postures of though] worked very well … the resulting creature was far smarter than a ring sentry. In most ways, it was not as bright as a single heads-together pack, yet sometimes it had striking insights. Before he left for the Long Lakes, the Master had developed a plan to rebuild the castle main hall so council sessions could be conducted in this posture. Steel hadn’t pursued that idea. It was just a bit too risky; Steel’s domination of others was not quite as complete as Fletcher’s had been…

Is there an optimal spatial design of a place of debate? Is it possible to design a hall of parliament that makes it more difficult to launch ad hominen attacks? Etc.

There’s something comforting about the idea that shapes impose some constraint on the universe, and that if we could only learn how to understand and deploy those patterns (/signals/laws/language), there is nothing we couldn’t do.

Keller Easterling explores this idea further in her book, The Action is the Form.