There are two main subplots in my novel, A Fire Upon the Deep: the galactic starfaring of Ravna, Pham, and the Skroderiders; and the adventure with the creatures of the Tines World. Of the two, the tale of Ravna and Company was by far the harder for me to write, and probably accounted for two—thirds of my revision time. Much of the difficulty was that galactic adventure is a crowded genre; writing cool new space opera is possible, but not easy. So I slaved and thought and slaved some more, and in the end I think the galactic subplot of A Fire upon the Deep is as intriguing as the groundside subplot with the Tines. In fact, the diligent/analytical part of me gets a thrill when I run into a fan who prefers the galactic subplot; such opinions are a testament to hard work well done.
The Tines World subplot was a very different situation: the most interesting thing about the Tines hadn’t had much prior exploitation. Individual Tines look a lot like dogs—and are not much smarter than dogs—but Tinish packs of four to eight members are about as smart as an individual human being. Packs bigger than seven are often dopey, and packs bigger than ten are considered to be mindless mobs. Group minds have been in science fiction at least since Olaf Stapledon’s novels in the 1930s (for example, The Starmaker)—usually with thousands or millions of members. There haven’t been many stories about group minds with fewer than ten members. (I’ll bet there have been 2-member examples, human twins of one mind. And Poul Anderson had 3-member group minds in his novel The Rebel Worlds, back in 1969.
I rely on the Internet’s group mind to supply me with other examples!)
So with the Tines, novelty was easy. Furthermore, the nature of the pack mind made all sorts of alien behavior credible. And most readers have a natural sympathy for dogs: where I needed cute and likable alien characters, they could be easily supplied. Technical issues determined many of the details. For instance, I had originally intended that the Tines would use some naturally evolved radio sense to unite member minds into a pack. One of the early readers suggested I use ultrasound instead. That implied all sorts of cool things about the packs. The speed of sound is about a million times slower than lightspeed, and ultra-high-frequency sound is dramatically absorbed by just a few meters of air. Packs of Tines often have reason to get their heads together.
Even at the sentence level, writing about the Tines was fun. I found that many clichés and much silly language had fresh meaning when applied to Tinish packs:
“I’m of two minds on this issue.”
“Tell your conscience to take a walk.”
“I may be a little bit pregnant.”
(On the other hand, “on the other hand” just sounds wrong coming from a pack!)
The Tinish subplot of A Fire Upon the Deep was big enough to explore many features of the pack civilization.
That was 1992. Since then I’ve had more time to live with these fictional beasties. In many ways they seem very real to me. There’s nothing about the Tines of A Fire Upon the Deep that I think is seriously wrong, but at the same time, there are major consequences left unexplored. The “Tinish condition” is weirdly different from the “human condition”. Almost everything Tinish has a dual nature: that of the individual pack members, and that of the members’ pack. For example, a pack member is clearly mortal, but the pack as a whole might exist for far longer, with mortality a matter of contingency and definition. How the Tines interact with the human children, refugees from near godhood, drives much of plot of the upcoming sequel, The Children of the Sky.
From the Tor/Forge October newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from our October newsletter:
- You’re ending Repairman Jack? Really? by F. Paul Wilson
- Walking in My Character’s Footsteps by Kiki Hamilton
- A Sneak Peek at Dear Creature by Jonathan Case