The Alexandrian

Roughly speaking, Vernor Vinge’s career as a novelist can be divided into three parts: His earliest novels, written pre-1983; the Across Realtime novels of the mid-1980s; and the award-winning Zones novels of the 1990s.

This reaction covers the first of these. I am planning additional reactions to cover his later novels.

TATJA GRIMM’S WORLD

Tatja Grimm's World - Vernor VingeThe novel now known as Tatja Grimm’s World has something of a fractured history. In it’s earliest form, it was published as the short story “Grimm’s Story” in 1968. Damon Knight then asked Vinge to expand “Grimm’s Story” to novel-length, which he did by essentially writing another short story as a sequel to the first and then putting the two together as a patch-up.

The novel, published in 1969 as Grimm’s World, apparently made very little splash and eventually went out of print. In 1986, however, Jim Baen asked Vernor Vinge to expand and revise the novel for a reprint edition. This time Vinge wrote a prequel, which was published separately as “The Barbarian Princess” in Analog and then published as part of the new Tatja Grimm’s World in 1987.

Attempting to read Tatja Grimm’s World as a novel is an unrewarding experience: It’s poorly paced and completely disjointed. There are gaping holes in the individual character arcs and point of view characters disappear mysteriously between the chapter breaks.

Read correctly as a collection of three connected short stories, however, it makes a much stronger impression. I would also say that the addition of “The Barbarian Princess” in 1987 makes a big difference, allowing Vinge to more clearly establish his themes and primary character arc.

That being said, there’s still some awkwardness to be found here. You can tell that the core of this collection/novel is still the work of a young author early in his career.

But that’s not to say that the book doesn’t have a lot of offer, as well:

Tatja Grimm’s World takes place on a world at the cusp of the scientific revolution. But this world lacks metals, has a unique geography, and is possessed of distinctly different cultures. The result is a very different sort of scientific revolution, which Vinge works out in fascinating detail.

As his main character, Vinge chooses the editor of a fantasy and contrivance fiction magazine. (For “contrivance fiction” you can read “science fiction”.) This gives him a rather unique view of the gradual scientific revolution taking root on this alien world, but all of this takes a backseat to the character at the center of this drama: Tatja Grimm. It’s her mystery which forms the backbone of the novel’s plot.

Where this novel succeeds is in its hard SF extrapolation of an alien world in a parallel time of technological change, mixed with a story in which those elements are frequently expressed using the tropes of fantasy. (A mixture which is nicely mirrored in the main character’s fantasy and contrivance fiction magazine.)

Where the novel fails, however, is when it can’t quite make me believe the extrapolation. For example, Vinge posits a sea-based society more technologically and socially advanced than the island-based societies they trade with. This society also endures for at least a millennia with not only seemingly little change, but with a continuity of individual vessels (which are impractically huge). I can’t quite make those pieces, or some of the subsidiary technologies described, really fit together in my mind.

But if you can grab your bootstraps every so often and haul your suspension of disbelief back up where it belongs, I think you’ll find Tatja Grimm’s World to be a pleasant little read… particularly in the context of Vinge’s later writing.

THE WITLING

The Witling - Vernor VingeThe Witling, published in 1976, is a deeply flawed novel.

The primary problem here is that the characters come across as flat and lifeless – their actions seemingly forced by authorial fiat. With a little imagination you can see how these character arcs could have been very, very compelling… but they aren’t. Emotions, for example, don’t seem to emerge organically from the characters. Instead they just seem to happen, with the only seeming cause being that the author’s outline said that they should.

This core problem also cascades to certain extent. At first glance, for example, the plots appears to have been padded out from a more proper novella length. But, upon reflection, it would appear that this is simply an aggravated symptom of the character dramas falling with such resounding thuds.

Where the novel succeeds, however, is in its analysis of its central conceit: Teleportation which observes the conservation of momentum. Vinge takes this idea and extrapolates it to at least four levels of depth. To borrow John Campbell’s saying again: Not just the car, but the traffic jam, the interstate system, the oil crisis of the ‘70s, and the search for alternative fuels.

I suspect The Witling’s biggest problem is that it’s narrative structure and tapioca characters would be primarily appealing to the hard SF aficionados who like things like Niven’s Ringworld– where the central conceit and speculation of the story takes center stage and holds your attention and fascination. But the conceit in this case takes the form of psychic teleportation – so those same hard SF aficionados are probably turned off by how “improbable” it is (as opposed to scrith, I suppose).

That being said, Vinge’s detailed extrapolation of the teleportation is, in fact, interesting, rigorous, and detailed enough that The Witling makes for a worthwhile read.

TRUE NAMES

True Names - Vernor VingeTrue Names is a little difficult to classify. It’s short enough to technically classify as a novella. However, it’s long enough that it has been published as a stand-alone novel in its own right.

At the moment, the story is only available as part of the volume True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier – which collects the story itself along with a dozen or so essays by other authors discussing the story and its predictions. So, for the sake of argument, I’m going to classify True Names as a novel and discuss it here. (It should be noted, however, that I don’t own the current collection and have not read the essays. So this is a reaction only to True Names itself.)

True Names is probably the specific point at which Vinge went from being “a pretty decent SF author” to “hot shit”. There were a few false steps still to be taken, and it took awhile for the rest of the world to notice, but with True Names Vinge basically arrived. He pulled the lever and he delivered.

It’s probably not coincidental that True Names is also basically the first time that Vinge puts the Singularity firmly in his sights and pulls the trigger. He comes at it from multiple directions, trying to hem it in and define its outlines… and then he plunges into it, penetrating perhaps as deeply as one can into the fundamentally incomprehensible. Then he pulls back and lets the foundations of his story rest firmly on a human drama.

But, in truth, that’s not the primary focus of the story.

Nor is the primary focus of the story to be found in Vinge’s casual introduction of a fully-realized cyberspace, a trope which has been masticated endlessly in the two and a half decades since.

No, the primary focus of this story lies in the subtle, interwoven theme suggested by the title: The power and meaning of true names. Vinge allows this theme to play itself simultaneously on planes transcendental, digital, and mortal.

True Names is a complicated and subtly worked narrative. Vinge isn’t afraid to keep adding one big idea after another to his pot until it’s almost overflowing, stirring in multi-layered character dramas, spicing the whole thing lightly with thematic elegance, and then bringing the whole thing to a slow boil over a plot of high-stakes thrills.

But what makes True Names even more impressive is that, in the act of reading, you’re scarcely aware of the complexity of the material you’re reading. Somehow Vinge manages to present it all with smooth prose and fast-placed plotting, keeping you fully engaged in his story and turning the pages as if you were reading nothing more substantial than a piece of light adventure fiction. It’s only when you’ve breathlessly flipped the last page and have a moment to reflect that you realize the truth:

This is the reason you read science fiction.

GRADES:

TATJA GRIMM’S WORLD: B
THE WITLING: C+
TRUE NAMES: A+

Vernor Vinge
Published: 1968 / 1976 / 1981
Publisher: Tor
Cover Price: $14.95
ISBNs: 0-76-530885-1 / 0-671-65634-1 / 0-31-286207-5
Buy Now!

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