Thursday, March 28, 2024

Review: The Witling, by Vernor Vinge

Review: The Witling, by Vernor Vinge

by Rich Horton

Vernor Vinge died the other day at the age of 79. I have written an obituary elsewhere (, so I won't recapitulate that here. I thought, instead, that I would reread one of his novels and review it.

I chose, perhaps perversely, his second novel, from 1976, The Witling, which is generally regarded as his worst novel. I agree with that assessment, but I haven't reread this book since shortly after it was published, so I didn't really remember it. It has been generally available -- first editions from DAW in the US and Dobson in the UK, an illustrated trade paperback in 1983 from Bluejay, and more reprints from Hamlyn, Baen, Pan, and Tor, the most recent in 2006 (and still in print.) This is unusual for a minor paperback original, but it reflects Vinge's status.

The Witling is set on the planet Giri, which is in a system with two habitable planets. Humans have colonized the other planet, and now they have set an expedition to Giri, having realized it has an intelligent race. Their vanguard is an elderly archaeologist, Ajão Bjault, and young space pilot, Yonnine Leg-Wot. As they wait for more of their fellows to land, they encounter the aliens -- and somehow the shuttle with the other Novamericans crashes, and Ajão and Yonnine are captured. 

On a parallel path we follow the aliens, especially the Crown Prince of the nation the humans have landed in, Pelio. Pelio, we quickly learn, is a "witling" -- he is, in the terms of the Girians, handicapped, because he cannot teleport. (This is, of course, how the Girians, with a fairly low level of tech, were able to down the shuttle.) The Prince is unhappy, because his knows his people disrespect him for his handicap. He learns of the capture of Ajão and Yonnine and decides to take the chance of bringing them under his protection. And when he sees Yonnine, his falls immediately for her.

Why? Well, apparently, Yonnine is a rather stocky woman, by Novamerican standards. And so she is considered unattractive. But the Girians are much heavier-set, and by their standards, she is beautifully slim. Uggh. This is stupid on so many levels (women of all builds are attractive, for one, and for two, why would Giri's people have that particular standard of beauty, and for three, it's really tiresome to have adult people falling for other people instantly based purely on physical attraction. Especially when the other people are aliens -- and surely not interfertile.) 

Anyway, Ajão and Yonnine realize they need to recover their maser to call for rescue, and the Prince has the recovered equipment hidden away. Eventually he agrees to let them look at the equipment -- only to find it's been stolen. And throughout this time we have been learning about the implications of a society of teleports. One is -- no doors. Why add a door when you can just teleport inside? To be sure, you have to have been anywhere you want to teleport ("reng"), or at least close enough to "seng" the empty spaces? The exceptions are the super powerful Guildsmen, who are ideally found when young, taken to be raised by the Guild, and who then offer their services -- they can, for example, seng and reng all the way to the moons. Naturally the royal family is very careful about revealing the location of their secret hiding places, so either a Guildsman or a royal must have stolen the equipment.

Anyway -- the plot gets in motion. Ajão and Yoninne must travel to the island where the rest of their people have landed. And here comes in another consequence of teleportation one can only travel roughly along lines of longitude, so as to maintain a low relative velocity between your points of departure and arrival. And travel to an island is extra hard, because boats are vulnerable to sea creatures who can also attack via telekinesis. But perhaps the humans have some technology that may help?

There's some more going on: palace intrigue (leading to absurd artificial deadlines), strife between the various polities on Giri, traitors, etc. And all this resolves in a dramatic ending, with an heroic sacrifice. And a really rather dumb -- and annoying! -- final line.

As a novel of action, it's OK. As a novel of science fiction, it has all kinds of flaws -- not very interesting social organizations, some silly science (especially the odd similarity of the Girians and the humans). As a novel of character, it's kind of negligible. As an extrapolation of how a society of teleports might be organized, and how teleportation might really work? It's pretty interesting, and I'm sure that's what excited Vinge about this project. So when he shows why you need pools at your destinations, or how a single palace can be spread across an entire meridian, or how to use air as a weapon -- that stuff is pretty cool. And, hey, I read it all quickly and with enjoyment (if punctuated by frustration.) Vinge got better -- lots better! As a worst novel in a career, The Witling is above average.

1 comment:

  1. As I mentioned, I plan on reading this one as well. Or maybe a short story collection instead. I haven't read Vinge since my late teens.