This is a novel of a fairly near future. According to the blurb on the inside cover, it takes place in 2025 -- I don't remember the year actually being mentioned in the text, but it is clear that it's about one generation from now. It's pretty hard to believe that the world could be that different in that short a time through the continuing advance of technology, but that is at some level the point. Vinge's vision of the world is based on the assumption that the networks that develop from the Internet we have today create a collaborative environment that effectively boosts human intelligence at an accelerating rate. This of course leads to both fantastic benefits (one of the central characters in the book is cured of end-stage Alzheimer's) and great perils to civilization (terrorists have nuked several cities, including Chicago, and the level of surveillance and limits on freedom go far beyond anything even imagined by our government today). Most of the important futurist writers now are talking about The Singularity, an upcoming event where the technological progress curve goes vertical and what what happens past the asymptote is completely beyond our comprehension. This novel is trying to show that change happening.
The main plot of the story is the struggle between one actor who is trying to develop a technology that scares the thinkers of the day the way we were scared of nuclear war in the 1950's (he seems to have convinced himself that he would be using his power to save the world, but he's keeping it secret because he knows that the rest of the world wouldn't trust him), the intelligence services whose job it is to stop him, and a third entity contacted only through the network who keeps surprising the other players with how powerful he is. Much of the world-moving plot is played out by the members of one remarkable family who are catspaws of the global players. This is mixed with a more personal plot of family dysfunction, growing up, and forgiveness.
The novel works fairly well on both levels. The techno-speculation is certainly interesting. I don't find it fully convincing that the kind of advances in human capabilities Vinge describes are possible, and I'm certainly not convinced they can happen so fast -- but it's certainly very interesting to think about. The human story does a pretty fair job of showing that even when we have access to creative and analytical abilities beyond even the imagination of poor, benighted non-net-enhanced humans, we're still humans, and how we treat each other as humans is still what counts. It's a solid book from an important author, and certainly worth reading. I can't consciously identify any real flaws or reasons why, but somehow it's not fully satisfying.
8 out of 10.