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The Collected Stories Of Vernor Vinge

1/12/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Collected Stories Of Vernor Vinge in the USA - or Buy The Collected Stories Of Vernor Vinge in the UK

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pub: Souvenir Press Ltd. 464 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP14.99 (U). ISBN: 978-0-028563-821-1).

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This is a curious book. The word ‘collected’ suggests that the author’s back catalogue has been trawled for those worthy but rarely collected works that makes up the oeuvre and demonstrate their development in style and ideas. This volume instead reads as a carefully chosen selection of stories giving an overview of his career even though the forward claims this is all his stories except five. There are seventeen here with publication dates ranging from 1965 to 2001, when this volume was originally published in the USA. This does not make Vinge a prolific writer. All his stories tend to be cerebral, giving the characters intellectual problems to solve instead of having a high action content.

‘Bookworm, Run!’ was the earliest of Vinge’s writing to be published. It is narrated from the point of view of Norman, a chimp with Amplified Intelligence. Norman uses his induced intelligence to make a break from the research facility but not realising he is not ‘normal’ and has no social skills when it comes to reacting with real people soon runs into problems.

‘The Accomplice’ was first published in 1967. It is both prophetic and out dated as it tells of a man who has discovered a way of making animated films by using computer technology. A revolutionary idea at the time it is now almost common-place and we can all do it in our bedrooms.

‘The Peddler’s Apprentice’ was a collaboration with Joan D. Vinge. Although they discussed the ideas together, Vernor began writing it, Joan finished it. Superficially, this appears to be a fantasy story in which a magic user meets the protagonist and teaches him enough to become a leader of a kingdom. In fact, the magic user is actually employing advanced technology. This could have been an examination of the consequences of a superior civilisation interfering with a less developed one, instead it is a more reflective look at a life that was changed by it but not the whole world.

A number of the stories deal with a post-apocalyptic scenario as a look at how the future could turn out. In ‘The Ungoverned’, one area of the USA has no government – the ruling principle is anarchy. It is policed by ‘insurance gangs’ which are helpless in the face of an invasion from the highly organised military machine of New Mexico. The enemy think they have a soft target but their assumption do not allow for individual mavericks who throw the unexpected at them.

‘Apartness’ is another post-apocalyptic story in which the governments of the Northern Hemisphere have managed to make half the planet uninhabitable. A party from South America discovers a remote, primitive tribe living on the fringes of Antarctica. The thrust of the story turns on where they originated from. Set in the same world is ‘Conquest By Default’, though it contains a totally different set of characters. This is also an alien invasion story told from the alien point of view. The crux here relates to semantics with the aliens learning too well from human history.

The fourth post-apocalyptic story is ‘The Whirligig Of Time’. In a far future, well after the war, a despotic prince has a hobby of collecting ancient spaceships. The one that has just been detected in Earth space and he is about to add to his collection was not intended as a satellite.

It is often been assumed that to write from an alien perspective should be avoided as in reality it would probably impossible to imagine how they would think and would be given human perspectives. In a short story, it is easier to get away with, especially if the focus of the plot is the hardware rather than the characters. This is the case in both ‘Bomb Scare’ and ‘Science Fair’. In the former, the aliens are planning to destroy a planet inhabited by a race that has annoyed them. In the latter, it is a future astronomical catastrophe that is the focus.

Most of Vinge’s stories are cerebral in nature, long on description, short on action. The emphasis is on the ideas rather than the interplay between personalities. So it is refreshing to find ‘Gemstone’ included here. Overtly, it is a contemporary horror story. Sanda’s grandmother has a crystal that holds the memories of her late husband, brought back from the wastes of the Antarctic. It is the unwitting cause of the horror. Ultimately, though, the premise can be explained as Science Fiction. For once, the characters feel as if they are in real danger.

Predominantly, though, all the stories are SF and Vinge prefers to write about a very far future. ‘Just Peace’ is Vinge’s second collaboration, this time with Bill Rupp. It is written as an adventure story with one man’s attempt to negotiate a peace between warring nations. Failure to do so will mean that the necessary collaboration to save the planet from physically disintegrating will not happen. While ‘Just Peace’ is set within our solar system, ‘Original Sin’ involves aliens. The race concerned has an unusual life cycle which is only twenty-five months long. They want to increase their longevity and hire an Earth scientist to find the way. It is a story that throws up ethical issues about interfering in other civilisations and touches briefly on the consequences.

Writing a short story can lead an author into converting the ideas into a novel. Often when that short story forms a part of the text, what follows doesn’t always live up to the expectations of the original short. ‘The Blabber’ was the first excursion into the universe that encompassed the novels ‘Fire Upon The Deep’ and ‘A Deepness In The Sky’ but is a completely separate unit. It takes place sequentially after the novels although written before and involves the dilemma a young man has when an alien trader wishes to buy his pet. ‘The Barbarian Princess’ is almost the opposite of this as it is a revisiting of a world created in an earlier novella. There is not attempt to marry the parts together and this is a complete story that needs no embellishment.

Like many writing in the SF field in the fifties and sixties, many of Vinge’s stories are centred around ideas. These or often extrapolations of what was cutting edge science or philosophy at the time of writing. It is only later in his career that he begins to develop character driven stories. This may lead to some readers finding the earlier stories heavy going. They are, however, worth persevering with as the ideas are original at the time he wrote them and the prose becomes increasingly skilful.

Pauline Morgan

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