Friday, March 12, 2010


Vernor Vinge seems to be a very highly regarded sci-fi author, but for some bizarre reason, the San Jose library doesn't carry any of his novels, and so I haven't been able to follow up on my excellent experience with his novel "Rainbow's End."  That book was the first hard sci-fi that I'd read in ages, and it was a really thrilling experience that reminded me what I used to love about sci-fi: the way it can turn on parts of your brain, activating modes of thought and prompting you to consider how the world could change, how you could change, what really lies beneath our everyday reality. 

While the library doesn't have his novels (I'm particularly curious about "A Fire Upon the Deep"), it does carry a collection of his short stories, which I finally got around to checking out.  It's great stuff, and shows an impressive range.  Everything in here counts as science fiction of some sort, but no two stories are really alike; they range from adventure tales, to fairly sentimental character studies, to cleverly plotted puzzle stories, to thrillers.

I hadn't realized just how long Vernor has been active for.  He wrote his first stories while he was still a teenager in the 1960's.  He's currently a professor, so he isn't a full-time author, which I'm sure limits his output somewhat.  That arrangement is probably a really good thing, though... it keeps him active in the real world (well, as real as an academic in San Diego can experience), away from the solipsistic temptations of professional writers.


Things got off to a great start with "Bookworm, Run!"  After all, it's about an ape!  How could I possibly withhold my approval from Monkey-related shenanigans?  The concepts are interesting, but were probably more revolutionary in the 1960's: networks of computers, vast stores of electronic government data that could be instantly and remotely accessed, augmenting a biological brain with digital data.  All that plus comical Russian spies... neat!

A couple of the stories feel a bit more like fantasy, but sooner or later betray their sci-fi leanings.  One features a high-tech "peddler" who arrives on a low-tech world.  There's the obligatory Asimovian rumination about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.  However, the peddler takes a young (and violent) man in under his wing, and gradually the youngster begins to understand the nature of technology.  Another pseudo-fantasy was one of my favorite stories here, "The Barbarian Princess."  This story was about a sci-fi/fantasy magazine (!) on an alien world (!!) which sails a ship among a large number of archipelagos, collecting new stories and selling issues with tales from other writers (!!!).  This is also a relatively low-tech world; the telescope has only recently been invented, and there's no form of communication faster than the ship.  There's a really good reason for the tech, though: metal is extraordinarily rare.  A tribe offers to pay "a few coppers" for issues of the latest magazine; this would be a pittance in a fantasy world, but it's extremely lucrative here.  The lack of metal (and petroleum) has hampered progress, and some of my favorite parts are when the characters daydream about what it must be like to live on a planet with abundant supplies of metal.

Some of the most science-fiction-y stories prominently feature aliens, and Vinge gets some good mileage out of playing around with stereotypes about these creatures.  In one case, he inverts our common Foundation-esque view of aliens (wise, advanced, experienced) and comes up with a race of incredibly impatient, short, and violent creatures.  (This story also features a Noir style, which is pulled off masterfully well.)

Vinge switches up his writing style as much as he varies his subjects.  The aforementioned alien story is told in the first person; most of his stories are told in third person, with varying levels of omniscience; and a particularly entertaining one is an advertisement in Scientific American, aimed at recruiting one particular reader to join a shady biotech firm.  He doesn't do anything earthshatteringly literary with perspective, but he uses it well to tell his stories... he isn't a Kilgore Trout sort of sci-fi author who has great ideas but no skill.


As far as I can tell, this collection includes every short story Vinge has published, which is cool.  It's a shorter collection than I would have expected for someone who has been writing as long as he has; but, again, he's been doing other things with his life, including writing novels that my library inexplicably omits.  What he has here is great; even his earliest stuff is fun to read, and he stays strong throughout.  The very last story here, "Fast Times at Fairmont High," was the kernel for "Rainbow's End," which lends a nicely circular feel to my experiences with this author.  Anyways.  This is a great collection for any sci-fi fan, or anyone who wants to be a fan, or was one once and wants to remember why they enjoyed it so much.

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