Tag Archives: sf

Book Review: The Witling (Vernor Vinge 1976)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 3/5

As far as I can tell, “The Witling” is Vernor Vinge’s second novel, and to some extent, it shows. I enjoyed reading it, but it doesn’t have the depths of Vinge’s later works like “A Fire Upon the Deep” or less-known but also good “The Peace War”. The book is only about 175 pages long; I’m not the fastest reader and I finished in two pretty short sessions, also unlike Vinge’s other novels.

The story opens with two humans who have become marooned on an alien world with human-like inhabitants. Only after being captured do the humans realize that the natives have what we would call supernatural abilities: transporting themselves or objects by will of the mind. The magnitude of this ability varies from person to person; those with the least ability are called witlings. The two humans, with no ability, fall into this category. The prince of the realm also happens to be a witling, which is a great source of shame for him. He is intrigued by the humans, especially the woman. The humans must get off the surface, as all the alien foods naturally contain heavy metals, and continued exposure will be fatal.

Although he provides no supporting science for the abilities of the aliens, Vinge does what I like best in sci-fi–he takes a simple premise and runs far with it. With these abilities, how would you imprison someone? How would you travel the world? Would you even need doors? How would you conduct warfare? These issues come up again and again through the book, and each time they are a delight.

Another interesting point touched upon is body image. The book starts with the human male describing the woman, Yoninne, as ugly and unpleasant, too stocky and temperamental. The aliens, who it’s hinted have a slightly stronger gravity, are stockier, and to them, Yoninne is close enough in build, but different enough to be exotic and tantalizing. I haven’t read much sci-fi of this era that deals with such issues of perception; unfortunately, this thread is not continued throughout the book.

The primary reason I rate “The Witling” as a 3/5 and not higher is because I found the ending unsatisfying. I won’t go into specifics in this review. The action was quite good and fun, but it conceptually bothered me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this book, especially to those who have read a lot of other works by Vernor Vinge. It’s interesting to see the form of his early, less perfect work, plus it’s a super quick read.

Book review: Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress 1993)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

“Beggars in Spain” is a science fiction novel written in 1993; it was nominated for the top two awards in the field, the Hugo and the Nebula, though it didn’t win either. (“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson won both; it is one of the most detailed hard sf books I’ve read.) “Beggars in Spain” is one of those sf books that can be summarized by a what-if– what-if some people didn’t have to sleep at all? How would society react? What kinds of advantages would they have? How would it affect the personality of such a person?

The novel opens with a wealthy man wishing to procure advantageous genetic alterations for his to-be-conceived child in 2008. Though it is still rare, he wants his child to be sleepless. The children who have the trait have proven to be much smarter and always cheerful. Another child is conceived accidentally who is not sleepless (as a small nitpick, the science in this bit seemed fishy, but I am not familiar with what was known in 1993). Leisha is the sleepless daughter, Alice is the sleeper daughter.

Leisha is of course beautiful and brilliant. Much of the novel rotates around how she relates to sleeper people. The characters in the book didn’t always work for me; Leisha is always cheerful as a sleeper, but this is hard to relate to, and hard to imagine how it would even work. Also there is an injection of almost libertarian politics that I wasn’t sure what I thought of. The politics aren’t preachy and are presented as Leisha’s world-view rather than the author’s. I liked the first half of the novel immensely. I didn’t dislike the second half, but I found it less exciting and engaging. One consistently strong point of this book was the writing: I sometimes have to labor through harder science fiction books, which must belabor the description of complicated mechanical things. This book just flew for me, while still attacking the central question of science fiction: what would happen to people if? So if you are a fan of hard sf and only hard sf, it probably isn’t for you.

“Beggars in Spain” was also one of the most female-dominated sf books I’ve read. Most of the principal characters are female. The book is feminist without caring about it or focusing on it; these characters could just as easily be male but they simply aren’t. It’s feminist not in the sense of women’s rights, but simply having women as protagonists and examining their relationships. I’ve read umpteen scifi books with barely a woman on the pages, so this was a welcome change of pace. Nancy Kress is also one of the few premier female names in science fiction, so it also seemed appropriate.

Overall, I found “Beggars in Spain” a very worthy read. It raised a lot of thoughtful questions that even a week after finishing the book, I find myself thinking about. It never came together in a “wow” moment, as a few sf books do for me, but it was pleasant and easy to read, which is not always the rule in sf. This was the first work I’ve read by Nancy Kress, and based on this book, I want to read more from her.

Feminism and Science Fiction

My favorite book is easily The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. I like how the book questions what forms a culture. It explores how the people of Gethen conform their culture and customs to their hostile weather and their unusual gender conformation. Perhaps this is a case of nature versus nurture on the grand scale. I think Left Hand was the first book I read with feminist overtones. When I read it in high school, these overtones were a matter of curiosity. Now that I am fully into adulthood, I guess it’s odd to see how prevalent gender remains in our “post-feminist” society.

Curiously, every woman I have ever known to read Left Hand likes it to some degree. Many men dislike it, I suspect because it simply did not resonate. There is something so enviable about the Gethenians and their relationship with gender.

I don’t necessarily feel deprived as a female, but things are certainly different for us than they are for men. Yesterday, I read an article in Slate about a female member of the skeptic community who was harassed extensively after she spoke out about sexism in their community. Just the day before that, I saw a documentary discussing the depiction of women in the media called Miss Representation. This documentary discussed the lack of female protagonists in movies, and how movies that do have female protagonists have male-centric plots and are still only marketed to women. It discussed how few women there are in high positions in these companies, and how few female directors there still are.

I feel that science fiction feels similar biases. I am much more versed in classical scifi (50s-80s) than the more modern stuff, but women characters that aren’t sex puppets are few and far between. I reread Ringworld this summer, and a 200 year-old man is a serial philanderer with 20 something babes. Even Left Hand lacks a single female, although it’s certainly feminist.

Are the modern works better? My most recent read, “Wind Up Girl”, didn’t exactly break the mold. When I go to the store, I still see few female authors in science fiction; however fantasy seems dominated by women. Unfortunately, fantasy rarely captures my imagination. I’ve never met a woman besides myself who liked science fiction more than fantasy. I wonder if sci fi’s lack of interest in women is part of it. Are women just less interested in science? Feminism and science is a whole other discussion, alas.

Thoughts? Reactions? Suggested reading, sci fi, nonfiction, or otherwise?