The catch (SPOILER WARNING) is that in the process of creating this world, the Winds had to revise their semantic concepts several times over so that they could be up to the task of managing planetary ecology. Thalience is not simply a language of words and definitions. In fact, there are two competing language-games at work on Ventus: Meditation, the original language-game used by the colonists is still being used by some of the Winds and works out a compromise with Thalience that prevents them from being wiped out completely. It's a mistake to think that the failure of Thalience to understand the colonists is a restriction on the language itself. The same problem of communication occurs in human cultures all the time. Conversely, Americans and British people frequently run into problems and misunderstandings despite supposedly speaking the same language and using having similar cultural values. The current situation is even more frustrating, because in order to create a useful semantic web there has to be a machine understandable set of human concepts; and we don't have one single set of concepts. You can determine how hard constructing a semantic web is just by thinking about the concept of date. Now imagine a machine trying to explain a semantic concept as culturally dependent to machines as "punk" is to humans.
There was no middle of the book slump, and whenever the plot slowed down the characters kept me invested as the emotional moments really worked. The slowly widening scale of the book helped, too - it stayed focused on Ventus, but the scale went from Jordan's personal concerns to planet-spanning things, and it never felt forced. - The major sci-fi question driving the plot is, why did the terraforming AI on Ventus go rogue? This digs into the question of thalience (i.e. can a sapient being created by humans truly be non-human), how nanotechnology would work on a massive scale, and what it means to be sapient (as well as human!) - The balance between sci-fi and fantasy is really well done, as not all characters are told what's going on and so on. Also the fantasy-level plot is just - it was solid and felt like a working society just as much as the sci-fi one did.
This book was the first novel of, and my first experience with, Karl Schroeder, who has since gone on to become one of my absolute favorites. And even though Jordan and Armiger are the main characters, they're far from the only ones, there are several characters, including a number of strong female characters who could be argued are the heroes of the piece except that they don't get enough page time. One of the things I've come to really appreciate about Karl Schroeder is his resistance to easy villains. Aside from a few minor characters, and 3340 who is mostly off-stage, most of the conflict in the book comes from people who are legitimately trying to do what they see as the right thing, in difficult situations or with inadequate information. I think this is my third or fourth reread, and, although it's not my favorite of Schroeder's books (that honor belongs to Lady of Mazes, which is set in the same universe but centuries earlier and far from the planet of Ventus), but I'm sure I'll be rereading it many times over the years.
Highly recommended to anyone who likes a good science fiction/fantasy read with interesting characters, and a good plot that evolves unexpectedly but inevitably from a rich texture of underlying concepts and assumptions.
The world of Ventus was seeded about a thousand years ago by a nanotech seed pod to terraform it. The idea of a completely artificial world, where nanotechnology is in everything but where everything could also be out to get you is a powerful one. Jordan is a good everyman character through whose eyes it's fascinating to see the world, and to see him grow as the story progresses. Although an option to buy the book (through PayPal) is available on the author's website, I didn't pay for it at the time since I didn't know if I'd like it or not.
Only it's really not like A Fire Upon the Deep at all (which is a good thing). But it does read too much like a fantasy novel to be "good science fiction".
For a thousand years the sovereign Winds have maintained the delicate ecological balance of the terraformed planet Ventus.