I love the idea of the novella double. Twelfth Planet Press is doing ones in the style of the old Ace doubles – different authors, back to back and upside down – and I really enjoyed the Tiptree/Russ double I read a few months ago. This one is different because it has two novellas by the same author, both of which had previously appeared in different venues. And the two stories are really quite different.
“Fireship” has the feel of a proto-cyberpunk story, to me, in that its emphasis is on a man/machine meld, and the action revolves around hacking a computer. The secondary characters are, sadly, largely two-dimensional and boring; they are there for plot resolution and really that’s it. The main character though… he is fascinating. MILD SPOILER! Ethan Ring is a gestalt: his personality is only created when a very ordinary man jacks into a superlogical supercomputer. Vinge posits the result as being entirely human in reactions and emotions, but lifted up by the computer’s abilities. Perhaps the most interesting dialogue is the internal, when human/machine/gestalt very occasionally interact. This is a really interesting take on the cyborg, and one that I’m not sure has been explored as much as it could be (if I’m wrong, tell me in the comments!). The other wonderful aspect of the story is the setting, Mars. We get intriguing glimpses of what it’s like to be on the colonised world – and it’s definitely got the feel of a colony – and some touching moments, like when the rains come and people rejoice. Additionally, there are some hints of some really interesting politics. Written in the late 1970s, it imagines politics basically being split between the US and “the Arabic states,” with Russia and China largely out of the picture.
Overall, “Fireship” is a quick read, with a fairly basic plot and ordinary characters. It’s worth reading to think about Ethan and what Vinge is saying about cyborg possibilities.
“Mother and Child” is an entirely different proposition. In three stages, the story is gradually told of a world struck by a terrible plague and suffering the consequences. The point of view gradually gets broader: at first, we see from a village smith’s perspective; then from a king’s; then, eventually – SPOILER! – from the point of view of an alien, tasked with dealing with the world and its inhabitants (reminiscent of le Guin’s Hainish cycle and Iain M Banks’ Culture, to an extent).
I’m somewhat conflicted about how it represents the main female character. On the one hand, the narrative is never from her point of view: it’s from that of her husband and then two abductors. On the other hand, she is entirely central – as the title points out – and is certainly shown as having agency: she picks her husband, and she actively decides on the fate of her child, and ultimately the fate of her world.
One of the most fascinating things about the story is its emphasis on the body. The plague has changed people, and it took me a while to realise just how much; revealing it would be too much of a spoiler, so I’ll just say that when they talk about having second sight, it’s not what you immediately think – and probably not what you thought just then, either.
I think “Mother and Child” is better written than “Fireship” and stays interesting more consistently. It certainly has better pace, perhaps because the three sections were really quite different from one another. I think I will read more Vinge, although I don’t think I will be racing out to get my hands on all her stuff.