In this case my tears are for all of you who will never read these stories

Heaven Chronicles — Joan D. Vinge
Heaven Chronicles

Heaven-Chronicles

Whereas Vinge’s Psion was written in Andre Norton mode, and her Snow Queen was a Space Opera retelling of a fairy tale, Heaven Chronicles contains three works — a novel and two novellas that have been merged into one longer novella — that are all pure, hard SF. However, this volume contains features such as plot and characters not normally (well, not necessarily) found within slide-rule SF. The result is a solid collection of stories I would strongly recommend you purchase if only any of them were actually in print.

I am cheating a bit here because this is an omnibus from 1991, published long, long after I was a teenager, but … the contents are all from the 1970s and all are works I read during the period covered by my review series, Because My Tears Are Delicious to You. Even better, the omnibus uses an about-the-author essay which can have been written no later than 1979, because it is completely unaware of her 1979 divorce or subsequent remarriage. The only non-period element is the cover art by Donald Clavette.

It turns out cover art really matters to me and also that I finally remembered to start including more of it in the text of the reviews. The first mass market paperback of the novel Outcasts of Heaven’s Belt (from Signet) looked like this:

Another cheat: I am also going to ignore a post-1980 change. This book has a novella called Legacy, composed from two earlier novellas, Media Man and Fool’s Gold.  I originally read Media Man and Fool’s Gold years apart and I am going to treat them as two things, not one. The changes were pretty minimal; Vinge really did intend Fool’s Gold as a close sequel to Media Man. Well, not so much a close sequel as a corrective that ‘sets right what went wrong in the first story.’ That, as I recall, was also one of the reasons The Summer Queen was written.

All three works share a common background: the Heaven System. This system is within reach of Sol by Bussard ramjet, although exactly which system it is seems to have been left unclear and the scant information we get about neighboring systems does not help. It has four planets: two terrestrials, one too hot for life and one too cold, and two gas giants, Discus and Sevin. It also has an unusually dense asteroid belt, which is what initially attracted settlers to the system. At its height, the Heaven Belt had one hundred million people living in luxury, people wealthier even than the inhabitants of Earth.

In these stories, the Belt’s glittering prosperity is generations in the past. The inhabitants of Heaven’s Belt were rich, powerful, and foolish, and they decided to explore the implications of a civil war in an environment where all life support is artificial. Most of the hundred million died within a couple of years of the beginning of the Civil War. By the time of these three narratives, only two significant communities remain, much reduced from their glory days1 but with just enough technology and resources to cling to existence: the obsessively democratic, steadfastly plutocratic Demarchy, which occupies Discus’ fore Trojans and who still can barely manufacture fission batteries, and the authoritarian Grand Harmony, which controls Discus and its volatile-rich moons. Neither can survive solely on the resources it controls; they are forced to trade to stay alive. But neither trusts the other and the relationship is hostile at best.

In the long run the mutual paranoia does not matter, because too much was lost in the Civil War. The Demarchy and the Grand Harmony are in a long, slow decline and the scraps they recover from the Belt can only slow their descent. Eventually every artificial habitat will go dark and cold. There is nowhere in this system where a human can survive without advanced technology.

As mentioned above, Legacy, the first novella in Heaven Chronicles, is composed of two novellas that were merged together. That happened in 1980 in the Binary Stars series. 

It’s just a coincidence that the series title was Binary Stars and that Vinge’s story was two novellas combined into one. But it’s an amusing coincidence, I think.

Media Man, first published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, October 1976

Life in the Demarchy does not offer many pleasant choices for those not lucky enough to be born wealthy. For Chaim Dartagnan, the least-bad choice was to become a Media Man, less a reporter and more a shill for the plutocrats of the Demarchy. His current job involves accompanying Demarch Siamang, spoiled scion of one of the great families, on what is ostensibly a rescue mission to Planet Two. Space coot Olefin is marooned there after a minor design flaw broke a small but essential part for which Olefin had had no storage space.

The third member of the rescue party is spaceship pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who rather astoundingly is a woman: the Demarchy preserved some of the technology of the golden age but their nuclear electric rockets provide very poor protection against radiation and any woman who ventures into space must abandon all hope of having kids. Chaim also has a background in piloting and that common ground is enough to allow Chaim and Mythili to discover they quite like each other in a belligerent sexual-tension sort of way.

Along the way they also discover that Siamang is a drug-using, mean bully, and a dangerous man to cross.

Alas, the rescue hits a bit of a bump when Siamang murders old man Olefin. Even more regrettably, Mythili is the sort of witness who will assure a killer that she will most definitely go to the cops once she and the killer return from Planet Two. The only other witness is someone who also can fly a spaceship and who has spent his life selling out to the Man.

As far Chaim can tell, his choices are to (A) buy Siamang’s trust by ejecting Mythili out into the inhospitable surface of Planet Two — notoriously established as incapable of supporting life way back in the early days of human exploration of the Heaven System — or (B) to refuse and be murdered by Siamang along with Mythili. The choice is an obvious one, given that Chaim knows something vital about Planet Two of which neither Mythili nor Siamang are aware.

The author’s notes in her collection Eyes of Amber explain that in this story, Vinge was reacting to one late-night movie too many wherein the witness confronts the killer before going to the police. Did I say “witness”? I meant “next victim.”

Fool’s Gold,  first published in Galileo, January 1980 (?):

Not to spoil too much about the previous novella, but … Mythili didn’t die and Chaim was left a pariah whom no wealthy Demarch could ever trust again. Happily, Wadie Abdhiamal, government negotiator, is the sort of cold, detached professional functionary who is clearly shipping Mythili with Chaim. He arranges for them to share salvage rights to Olefin’s ship. Will the pair get past the whole “left her to die in the frigid cold of a planet not known to be semi-habitable” thing or will they die hands locked around each other’s throats somewhere in the deeps of space?

Oh, Wadie, you big old softie. I strongly suspect he had Chaim and Mythili dolls that he makes kiss-kiss in the privacy of his office.

Outcasts of Heaven’s Belt, first published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, February–April 1978

In this short novel, the metastable relationship between the Demarchy and the Grand Harmony is undone by the arrival of visitors from outside the system, visitors who still possess secrets like “fusion power plants”.

The stellar systems near Heaven share a common feature: the ones that have habitable planets at all have marginally habitable planets because that’s the most common variety of habitable planet. While the communities on those worlds are not in the same dire straits in which the people of Heaven Belt find themselves in after the Civil War, it is still far too easy for the settled planets to slip over the edge into extinction. Hence, despite the challenges involved, worlds like tide-locked Morningside make every effort to maintain contact with their nearer neighbors via ramjet. These contacts can sometimes make the difference between survival and extinction.

Unfortunately for the crew of the Ranger, they are the first contact Heaven has had from the rest of the galaxy since before the Civil War. The ship’s information about the Heaven Belt is woefully out of date. The crew expect to find a wealthy system more than able to contribute to the collective good. What they find is a graveyard occupied by a handful of starvelings.

Even more unfortunately for the crew of the Ranger, the first concrete hint they get of the actual situation in the Heaven System is a Grand Harmony missile that explodes against the side of the ship. The missile kills most of the crew and cripples the Ranger. The ship and the remaining crew — Betha and Clewell — are now trapped in a system filled with desperate survivors who are willing to go to almost any lengths to get their hands on a piece of advanced technology.

Nobody in novels like this one ever seems to use radio to talk between star systems. Well, Niven had the colonists in the Sirius system radio the Solar System in World of Ptavvs but otherwise it’s oddly uncommon, given that radio technology is clearly easier to master than Bussard ramjets. Of course, the novel would not work at all if the systems near Heaven had been in the habit of radioing each other.

Reading all three narratives together also highlights how obsessed with reproduction the people of Heaven’s Belt are. A desire not to dwindle into extinction, combined with a challenging radiation environment made worse by the fission batteries the Demarchy manufactures, would explain this preoccupation. It’s not a recurring theme in the rest of Vinge’s fiction.

The Heaven System has what the experts call a weird-ass distribution of volatiles, something that drives the plot as much as the Civil War. The Harmony has lots of ice and such, whereas the Demarchy, 60 degrees ahead in the same orbit, does not. The Belt itself also seems pretty volatile-deficient, which is odd because it’s just outside the orbit of Planet Two, an ice box. The likely answer is that “the setting was created before Voyager I and II got to Jupiter, in an era when our understanding of the distribution of volatiles in deep space was more deficient” — but I can’t help wondering if there could be some past event that would make sense of the setting.

While reading all these stories at the same time (which would not have been how they were read when first published), I could not help but notice that Wadie being a big old cream puff who isn’t willing to make the hard choices for purely short term expediency plays a major role in Outcasts, just as his poorly concealed romanticism drove the plot of Legacy. How did this novel get serialized in Analog2? Did Tom Godwin live in vain?

I also cannot help but notice that while the story whose right answer was “push the girl out into the icy cold” was published in Analog, the story that resolves the tension this causes between Chaim and Mythili … wasn’t.

A few years ago, I was surprised to discover that these stories are set in what became Vernor Vinge’s Zones. While the novel has its roots in a moment of collaboration between Vernor and Joan Vinge, the novel is a lot more nuanced in its portrayal of the two main factions than anything I would expect from a work that once had Vernor’s fingerprints on it. While the Harmony is clearly authoritarian, it has legitimate virtues that the anarchistic Demarchy cannot match. The author who produced the mustache-twirling villains of the Emergency could not have written any of these pieces or any of the characters in them. That is why when I have an opportunity to review a Vinge, it is always Joan and never Vernor.

As far as I can tell, the contents of this omnibus are all out of print.

1: This has the benefit from my point of view that the rockets the inhabitants of the Heaven System use are either chemical (Harmony) or nuclear-electric (the Demarchy and its trading partners), not the zippy-fast one-gee-forever drives found in other works of SF. I like low delta-vee and/or low acceleration rockets, OK? Don’t judge me.

2: Not to mention the fact that when Analog serialized this, they serialized a novel in which the wealthiest culture in the human realms was clearly settled from somewhere other than Europe and North America, something that would seem to go against Analog established practice at the time:

ASF&SF 99(4) April 1979, Brass Tacks, p. 176

Dear Ben,

Just finished “I Put My Blue Genes On” by Orson Scott Card. Good story. But it reminded me that all your stories have one major fault. They are racist by implication and by supposition. They ignore the possibility that Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Ethiopians etc. might found civilizations in the stars. Card at least mentioned the Chinese (only to explain briefly that they had all been wiped out) to concentrate on the real world beaters of 2810 A.D. — the Americans (granted they came from Hawaii), the Russians, and the Brazilians. Western civilization all. Most of your stories just ignore the existence of Earth’s other races. Even a story about a planet peopled with the descendants of Japanese space explorers (Donald Kingsbury’s excellent “Shipwright”) feels it necessary to explain that this is an out-of-the-way, backward planet and that real interstellar civilization is white. Hope that in the future your writers will come to accept the fact that Nigerians as well as WASPs are star bound.

Gordon Heseltine

Canandaigua, NY 14424

Why is there no science fiction written by Eastern authors? (Assuming Russia and Japan are Western nations.) Because Eastern cultures are a-scientific. They will get to the stars aboard Western ships — no matter who builds them. 


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