Across Real time contains two linked novels that were originally published separately. It's a bit late to offer a review of novels published more than 20 years ago but I will share my thoughts on reading the compilation last week.
The first novel "The Peace War" is an enjoyable adventure yarn that introduces a few big ideas without really exploring them. In the second novel "Marooned in Real Time" the themes and ideas are explored more thoroughly. "Marooned" gives an early glimpse of Vinge's ability to think through a big idea and follow it to logical but surprising conclusions. Sadly the plot that ties "Marooned" together is a poorly executed detective story. Rabbits pulled from hats, Deus ex Machina and and a clumsy detective dénouement are used to wrap up the story in an entirely unsatisfactory fashion. Still the two books complement each other well and the presentation of both in a combined volume makes a lot of sense.
When I read "A Fire Upon the Deep" I was struck by the number and quality of Really Big Ideas that Vinge wove into that work. These earlier works have only one big idea and a number of themes.
The big idea is called bobbling but in fact it is really a very logical thought out approach to time travel. Imagine that we want to write a story about time travel that is logically consistent with the laws of science as we know them. Firstly we must reject travel backwards in time - too many paradoxes and causality issues. Travel forward is less paradoxical but also has its problems. Pluck a person from today and planting them fifty years into the future violates every conservation principle known to science. The solution that Vinge so elegantly postulates is for the time traveller to enter a form of stasis. Their mass and momentum continue to exist in real time but the passage of time stops for the traveller until they exit from their stasis bubble at the predetermined future destination. For the stasis to be absolute there must be no interaction between the time traveller and the outside world so the bubble has to be perfectly impermeable and perfectly reflective. Thus we have come to the mirrored spherical bobbles of Vinge's novels. The only flaw I can see is that since items within bobbles retain their mass they still interact with gravitational fields. At one point in "Marooned" a scheme to send a traveller through a black hole while embobbled is discussed but it is not clear to me that the bobble would actually protect the traveller from the tidal forces involved.
In addition to the bobbling idea the novels (particularly marooned) dwell on the idea of a technological singularity and of the concept of ungovernment. These are recurring themes in Vinges work but I must admit that I am not convinced about either of these ideas.
The technological singularity idea takes note of the accelerating rate of human progress and postulates that at a certain point progress will lead to a dramatic sudden change (the singularity) to a state which is so different from what we have to day that we cannot even begin to imagine it. It is often suggested that the kick off point for the singularity will be the creation of the first artificial superhuman intelligence. This intelligence will be able to create even more advanced intelligences leading rapidly to an abrupt leap in progress. As evidence for the coming singularity graphs showing the exponential rate of progress of humanity are shown but for me this is a major hole in their argument. An exponential curve may grow at an ever accelerating rate but it does not have a singularity. To say otherwise is bad maths.
Ungovernment (Anarcho-capitalism) suggests that individuals would do better without government but allowing the free market to provide the things that governments normally provide. I am extremely sceptical. I am neither economist of historian but I know enough about market failure to realise that I do not want to rely on an unrestricted free market to provide me with public goods. In Vinge's books misgovernment is hailed as the optimum solution for a technologically advanced society. However the example is trivial. Vinge's High Techs are so advanced that they are capable of supplying all of their own needs. There is no economy and no market because none are needed.