Last time I posted in this series, I talked about the characters, major and supporting. This time around, I'll run down some of the major themes in the story as I saw them.
The Vajra-verse is split into roughly two camps: the Old Way (humans who eschew technological self-advancement in varying degrees), and the Highend (the spectrum of "human-plus", from cortical linking to posthuman synthetic beings). Each side sees the other as adversarial. Old Way folks see Highend folks as having lost touch with what makes the human experience in the universe so important and precious, and the Highend folks see the Old Way folks as not having good answers to the genuinely difficult problems of life. Both have their own crises: the Old Way is losing adherents, and having its disciplines softened to the point where to call one's self "Old Way" is near-meaningless; and the Highend is becoming increasingly insular and detached even from itself.
The tension between these two factions inspires the pontiff of the Old Way to try and find some third path that synthesizes the two, to show that the two are not really in conflict but that the conflicts are merely artifacts of their respective origins. Stephen Jay Gould made much the same point about the false dichotomy between science and religion; for much of history, there wasn't really a conflict save for one trumped up to consolidate power.
Most of us think about what the universe owes us. Some of us wonder what we owe the universe. Henré comes into the story with a burdensome sense of cosmic responsibility: his mistakes, so he believes, cost him his family, and cost many other people their families, too. If he can find out exactly how he went wrong, he reasons, he can make up for it -- yes, even when the rest of the universe actively goes out of its way to keep him from doing so. His quest leads him to someone else who is also experiencing a crisis of personal responsibility: they want what amounts to revenge on the universe, and when they realize they can never really have it, they question what their real purpose is here. They both have something to teach each other, if they can recognize it.
A subject I come back to often in my work: the connections we build in our lives are as important, if not more so, than the ones we're born into. The latter is happenstance; the former is about agency and will.
Henré has, at the start of the book, no interest in replacing the family he lost because he knows full well there are no replacements for something that is meant to be unique (something his modest Old Way upbringing put into him, the idea that uniqueness is a sacred thing in human experience). But he gradually warms up to the idea that one can create new things that go in places the old ones couldn't -- even if they include all the loss and pain of the old ones, too.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind