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The Witling
Vernor Vinge
Tor, 224 pages

The Witling
Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge was born in 1944 in Wisconsin. He is a mathematician at San Diego State University, specializing in distributed computing and computer architecture. His first publication "Apartness" appeared in New Worlds SF (June 1965). His novel, A Fire Upon the Deep, won the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Deepness in the Sky

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Raven

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Vernor Vinge is a science fiction writer of great standing, renowned for introducing new themes and ideas to the genre in a number of highly acclaimed novels. He is probably best known for the concept of the technological singularity; an idea that informs much of his later fiction but which was developed as an offshoot of his academic career as a computer scientist.

The Witling was originally published in 1976. Although preceded by Grimm's World, the latter's status as a fix-up of two short stories qualifies The Witling as Vinge's first full novel. As such, it shows the early development of a now well-established writer, and throws a light on the rather different styles and tropes of science fiction at the time.

The planet Giri is inhabited by a humanoid race who have evolved psychokinetic powers, which manifests as the ability to teleport mass from place to place. As such, technological development has been remarkably scarce, and, taken in isolation, Giri has the feel of a fantasy novel's setting. The science fictional angle is provided by the presence of a pilot and an archaeologist from the planet Novamerika, which is located in the same solar system. Novamerika is part of a widely scattered human diaspora, one of many planets isolated from the rest of the species by the crippling logistics of interstellar time and space; here we see a foreshadowing of the themes that would become central to Vinge's later work.

The Witling, however, keeps a fairly close focus on Giri for almost the whole narrative. The two Novamerikans become stranded on the planet when the natives destroy their shuttle in the process of landing to pick them up; escape is imperative, not just because of the risk of being exposed as aliens rather than foreign wizards, but because of the lethal diet -- the heavy metals content of the local flora and fauna provides a ticking time-bomb of poisonous pressure. Our heroes are captured by the natives, and become playing pieces in the political intrigue that drives the planet's society.

The Novamerikans are devoid of psychic powers, but they are not completely alone in this status. Natives without "the Talent" are referred to as "witlings," and the human duo are also branded as such, with the locals assuming they are from some obscure province where such matters are not as important. The Crown Prince of the Summerkingdom is also a witling, and he falls in love with the Novamerikan pilot, whose homely looks come across as exotic beauty to the short and thickset natives.

Crown Prince Pelio becomes both potential salvation and a cause of great trouble to the stranded Novamerikans, and the plot is largely concerned with their efforts to reach a telemetry station left by other human surveyors on the far side of the planet. As such, it's not the most original of stories, and is very much a work of its era -- the world-building especially brings to mind the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey, which were a strong presence in the genre canon at the time.

Where The Witling differs from some of its contemporaries is in the scientific rigour with which Vinge treats the central trope of the book. While the native ability to teleport is never explained in explicit scientific terms, the consequences and imperatives that stem from it have been thoroughly thought through. Vinge has worked out the limitations of the Talent, describing a system by which the distance jumped is limited by the conservation of momentum -- if the difference in latitude between two points is too great, the transportee will emerge at their destination moving at a high velocity in relation to their surroundings, with potentially lethal consequences. Compare this to McCaffrey's dragons, which can simply pop from place to place across the globe with little concern beyond the potential of rematerialising within a solid object.

While the teleportation itself is a classic example of sci-fi hand-waving, Vinge never treats it as a magic wand, and the limitations and potentials of the ability are often crucial to plot developments, as opposed to acting as a convenient way out of narrative corners. The developments in question are often told through dialogue rather than inferred, and this is an example of how different the approach to fiction writing was at the time -- The Witling is a short book that moves quickly, but it has little character depth, and the implication is that the door-step size of modern novels is a function of increased narrative subtlety. It is certain that a modern fantasy novel set on the planet Giri would make much more of the exotic setting and complex sociopolitical set-up than Vinge has done here.

As a piece of genre archaeology, The Witling is an interesting artefact, and a pleasant enough way of spending a few hours. Fans of Vinge's more recent work may find its lack of high technological speculation disappointing, and its old-fashioned style lacking the crackle of more cutting-edge works. It works best, perhaps, as an insight to the early career development of a master of the genre; the first measured steps of a journeyman on the long path that has brought Vinge to the peak of his game.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Raven

Paul Raven is a dishevelled library assistant from the south coast of the UK. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation or neural prosthetics. Drop by his web site at the Velcro City Tourist Board


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