by Vernor Vinge
Cover Artist: Tom Kidd
Review by Colleen Cahill
Tor Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 076530886X
Date: 28 November, 2006 List Price $13.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
It is rare that an author's first or even second novel is a major bestseller. This is true for the celebrated hard-science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who gained prominence in the 1980s with his novella "True Names" and his Across Realtime novels. Like many authors, his earlier works are hard to find now, but with the republication of Vinge's second novel, The Witling, it is now possible to explore the early years of this first-class writer.
Ajão Bjault and Yoninne Leg-Wot are stationed on the planet Giri, assigned to watch the natives from a concealed location. All is going well, until they prepare to leave the planet: the Summerfolk become aware of their existence and destroy the ship sent to carry them home. This is shocking as the planet has a medieval society, one without nuclear power, electricity or even gun powder: how can these people take down a space ship? Only after they are captured do Bjault and Leg-Wot discover the deadly weapon: Girians can teleport. Just with the powers of their minds, the natives can move matter or rearrange it, and do so in myriad ways. As neither human has this ability, they are classed as witlings, making them no better than chattel. It is auspicious that the pair are taken by the Summerfolk as the heir to the Empire is also a witling, one who takes an interest in the humans. Bjault and Leg-Wot now join in a dangerous game of cat and mouse as Prince Pelio dances on a knife's edge: as a witling he is alive only due to his father's love and one wrong move, such as consorting with other witlings, could mean his execution.
Both humans realize that teleportation could be a major development in the exploration of other worlds. Space travel takes decades but teleportation could change that, making communication and travel more expeditious. The captured pair must get this information to their fellow humans and they must do it quickly, as heavy metals in the Giri foods are slowly poisoning them. Again, luck is on their side as Leg-Wot, whose "squat, slablike body" is the epitome of beauty to the Girians, has captured Prince Pelio romantic attentions. If she can convince the Prince to let them access their confiscated equipment, they could send out a message for help. Other groups, however, have their own plans for the humans and their artifacts, groups that could spell death for Bjault, Leg-Wot and Prince Pelio.
Although The Witling is set in a medieval world and some people have strange powers, this is in no way a fantasy novel. Vinge gives details on how teleportation came about on Giri and throws in some interesting facts, such as all life on the planet is mammalian. His explanations of this phenomena are thought-provoking and do not overwhelm this slim book, which has plenty of action and intrigue.
The Witling is delightful and a good book for young adults as well as more mature readers. The illustrations by Doug Beekman are a welcome addition and helped me see the physical differences between the two species. If you hesitated on picking up one of Vinge's larger works, The Witling is a good place to start exploring this excellent author’s offerings. If you are already a Vinge fan, you will want to seek out this early example of a science fiction master.