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