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REVIEW: The Witling by Vernor Vinge

REVIEW SUMMARY: Decent adventure, sound science and, perchance, a preview of The Singularity?


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Stranded on an alien planet of teleports and used as pawns of warring kingdoms, an archaeologist and a pilot try to find a way home before the local food finally poisons them.


PROS: Well-thought-out culture based on alien abilities; uses physics to frame alien mind powers; the emphasis on this sf/fantasy hybrid is on the science fiction.

CONS: Mind powers are not fully explained; the large majority of the characters are two dimensional.

BOTTOM LINE: A quick and entertaining read.

The Witling is Vernor Vinge’s first published novel (1976) and it’s a pretty good one. It tells the story of archaeologist Ajão Bjault and pilot Ionina, who become stranded on the planet Giri while on an exploration mission. They are soon captured by the relatively primitive and human-like native race of Azhiri, only to discover that the Azhiri have mind powers. Specifically, the Azhiri have the ability to teleport matter with their thoughts which they call “renging”. Azhiri that lack the Talent are known as witlings and occupy a lower social status…except for Pelio, a witling since birth but afforded a higher social standing since he happens to be the Prince of the land of Summer. What follows is a series of adventures as Ajão and Ionina come under the control of different warring kingdoms while looking for a way off the planet before the local mineral-laden food slowly poisons them.

The Witling reads a bit like a sf/fantasy hybrid what with the primitive Azhiri culture and the presence of kingdoms. While this is not an immediate turn off, the appeal for me – not being a huge fan of fantasy in historical settings – was the depiction of the alien culture and how it has evolved based upon the ability of the Azhiri to teleport matter. Vinge has given this some careful thought. For example, most buildings have no doors or hallways. What would be the point? People just pop in and out of wherever they need to go. Except witlings, of course, but then they are not really allowed to go anywhere they please anyway. Another example: food is grown far away and teleported in. Also, roads are nearly non-existent; the only reason people would walk anyplace is to allow them to “reng” to it later. (An unfortunate – and unexplained – limitation of the teleportation ability is that you had to previously been to the target location beforehand.) Where foot paths exist, they appear as straight lines on a polar projection map (handily drawn by the author himself). This is the result of being able to travel in a straight line while “senging” (seeing with their mind) their destination. The ability to teleport matter can also be used as a weapon by, say, scrambling some poor victim’s brains, as another example. Vinge has also given thought to the physics of teleportation (conservation of energy, angular momentum) though falls short of providing a scientific explanation for the powers themselves. Each teleportation must conserve energy and take into account the angular momentum of the planet’s rotation. Thus, long journeys are accomplished only through a series of shorter hops. (Only the super-Talented members of the neutral Guild class can reng over long distances.) And water is usually used to absorb any impact felt as a result in angular momentum change.

Other cool aspects of the story were the intrigue and power plays that occurred. As powerful as their teleportation abilities are, the Azhiri immediately recognize the advanced science of the newcomers as a powerful, must-have item. Similarly, Bjault and Ionina realize that teleportation technology would revolutionize human space travel. In other words, each race possesses something that the other one wants; a possession that would dramatically alter life their respective societies. (Could this perhaps be the seeds of Vinge’s singularity infatuation?) A large portion of the book is one intrigue-filled event after another.

On the negative side, the majority of the characters are two dimensional. Ajão is randomly pulled out of a bag of “scientific brain” stock characters just as Ionina is a standard “ace pilot”. While the tension between them at the book’s beginning is a nice conflict with potential, it peters out soon after their early capture. The one exception to bland characterizations is Prince Pelio. He’s the underdog you root for; a victimized witling in a land of condescending Talented. His seemingly powerful position of royalty is merely one of formality. Had his disappointed father, the King, been ruthless enough he would have killed Pelio years ago so that the kingdom could be handed over to his second-born son who does possess mind powers. All this makes Pelio a somewhat sympathetic character…that and having to be carted around to door-less buildings by others. How unbecoming of royalty! Sadly detracting from Pelio’s otherwise excellent portrayal was his awkward infatuation with Ionina. I just wasn’t buying it.

These shortcomings can be chalked up to the fact that The Witling is a first-novel. Even so, it easily holds up as an entertaining read.

About John DeNardo (13014 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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