The Collected Short Stories of Vernor Vinge (Book, 2008)
From Death Ray 13.
Vernor Vinge/Souvenir Press
All the shorter jottings of multiple award-winning Vinge gathered together in on place.
Vernor Vinge is an important novelist, an alumnus of Analog magazine. His work was published by John W Campbell alongside that of Asimov and Clarke, so he is one of those authors who bridge the period between the ‘Golden Age’ and modern SF.
He is not renowned for his short stories, simply because he doesn’t write many of them (see this interview for more on this). Still, there’s plenty to read in this collection, bringing together as it does all of his published short-form fiction from his 42 year career, bar ‘The Cookie Monster’, which was printed after this book’s initial American release in 2001. Though he’s not the world’s most prolific author, Vinge has a good ratio of plaudits to output, he is perhaps one of the most lauded of all hard SF writers, and these stories mark his quality well. Science always stands brooding behind the shoulder of Vinge’s muse. A great strength in this kind of fiction, and his science is visionary and feasible. But in his earlier work, the ‘What if?’ is often the theme rather than the motivator for the theme, giving the tales that peculiar clockwork feel scientist SF can exhibit, of ideas clicking toward an inevitable conclusion. However, Vinge developed as he progressed in his career, and his characters begin to live and breathe more in his possible possibles. The result is science fiction of the most refined brand, rich with canny prediction.
For a man who talks about the Singularity so much, this is rarely used as his agent of narrative change. Though it lurks at the edges of our peripheral vision, don’t come expecting machine wars or transcendental technological utopias, instead we have a man who loves to write stories about aliens and alternative governments, all as well considered as his science.
Each story has a commentary topping and tailing it wherein Vinge talks about the genesis and the intended effect of each story. These are very brief, but they are charming nonetheless.
Vinge is a solid writer, but he’s no Harlon Ellison-esque prose poet. Though his writing only sometimes takes you completely out of yourself, his ideas always fascinate. This collection will not disappoint.
I’ve not rated these, as they were written across a lifetime. Though all good, the older ones aren’t quite as polished as the newer ones, so it simply wouldn’t be that sporting.
Enhanced chimp makes a break from a base so secret its owners can’t find their way round it. Even Vinge’s first story is a foreshadowing of the Singularity, concerned as it is with the man/machine interface.
Computer animation transforms entertainment and makes everyone a potential artist. Amazingly prescient tale that is quaint in its prognostications. Though, of course, we can only say that in hindsight because it came true…
The Peddler’s Apprentice
Mysterious peddler arrives in a medieval future and kickstarts civilisation’s cycle of progress and fall, frozen by a tyrannical government for 10,000 years. An odd tale in that it has both great characters and a fine idea, but the two don’t quite square against one another. Written with Vinge’s ex-wife, the writer Joan Vinge.
Story set in Vinge’s ‘Realtime’ universe. The New Mexican government attempt to invade the anarchist centre of the ex-USA. A bit hard to get into but ultimately rewarding. One of Vinge’s occasional dabblings with anarchist themes.
Traditional SF yarn, with a far-fetched “What if?” that seeks to engross by hokily having mankind’s robotic saviour forget its mission, so we can have a twist. But he just about pulls it off.
A more human story this, a commentary on apartheid and the lessons, and punishments, of history.
Conquest by Default
Set in the same world as ‘Apartness’, ‘Conquest by Default’ deals with the colonisation of Earth by aliens. An extreme experiment in anarchy, as the aliens have a totally decentralised government and a free way of living. Great ideas and well-thought out societies combined to good effect.
The Whirligig of Time
Somewhat daft Cold War yarn that seems only to exist to demonstrate the mathematics of escape velocities and the indomitability of the human spirit.
The only story that expressly deals with a post-singularity situation, in which god-powered kids attempt to detonate an entire galaxy for a giggle.
The Science Fair
This is one where the science really does make the story creak. Also, would aliens that lived on a world that was so cold really develop infravision if it made them mostly blind? The least of the stories.
Unusually, ‘Gemstone’ is primarily about relationship; that between a girl and her grandmother. The science bit – that in the dead grandfather’s collection of rocks is a tele-empathic alien – takes a back seat. Almost Stephen King-ian.
An envoy from Earth must help save a devastated colony from a core collapse. But the surviving inhabitants have split into two diametrically opposed nation states. Powerful, post-singularity technology (obliquely referenced here), odd governmental systems and an apocalyptic scenario – a trio of Vinge’s favourites in one tale. Written with William Rupp, this is one of only two collaborations. He avoids them usually because they are “a good way to work just as hard as ever – but only get paid half as much”.
Mankind is faced by the Shimans, an alien race that is even more vicious and intelligent than we are. Should these short-lived monsters be helped in extending their pitifully short lifespan? Such violent creatures would probably not be able to develop any kind of society, but it’s otherwise a cracking adventure.
Vinge’s first venture into the Zones of Thought. A boy living at the very edge of the Slow Zone is tempted by an offer from an entity in the Beyond to leave his world. But it comes at the cost of giving up his beloved pet, The Blabber, an alien animal with the uncanny ability to mimic human speech. The first appearance of the hive-minded Tines features here.
Win a Nobel Prize!
A scientifically dense, very short 900 word piece originally run in Nature magazine about a modern-day Mephistophelean bargain. The technology featured, which enables certain aspects of the human mind to be permanently altered, plays a major part in A Deepness in the Sky.
The Barbarian Princess
Weird metal-poor world where a magazine publishing company, based on a barge, sails the world, buying stories as it goes. They hire a seemingly unintelligent woman to play the role of Hrala, a Red Sonja-like character, popular with the boys. Entertaining low-tech SF, musing on the nature of fiction.
Fast Times at Fairmont High
Hugo Award winner in 2002, and the same world Vinge used later in his novel Rainbow’s End. The novella follows students from an academy whose motto is “Trying Hard not to Become Obsolete”. As part of their exams, the kids have to complete one assignment offline, and they discover strange goings on… A peek at a near future of super-high bandwidth networking.