O Happy Pair

Fireship — Joan D. Vinge

Fireship

Joan D. Vinge’s 1978 Fireship was her first collection. It collects two novellas, the eponymous Fireship and 1975’s Mother and Child.


Fireship

Michael Yarrow was an ideal test subject for the first human/computer integration. He was an unassuming man whom nobody would miss if the experiment went horribly wrong. Instead, the trial run went horribly right; when Yarrow’s nervous system was coupled to the supercomputer ETHANAC, they became Ethan Ring, a being far greater than the sum of its parts. Determined to avoid vivisection, the composite being fled the United States, crashing the US defence computer system as a necessary first step in their escape.

A wanted being on Earth, Michael traveled to Mars, taking the compact ETHANAC with him. Prudence would have counselled keeping a low profile. Alas, Ethan has a weakness for gambling. His cognitive gifts make winning games of probability trivial for him. What he did not predict is that people will notice his effortless wins. Too many people can work out who he must be.

In the chaos that followed the Sino-Soviet nuclear war, Khorram Kabir built a vast commercial empire. It’s an empire focused on Kabir’s needs and desires and nobody else’s, but it is one that thus far has been impervious to attack or reform. Free Thought, Incorporated believes that Ethan’s talents are what they need to infiltrate Kabir’s computer networks. This is just the first step in their plan to free a considerable fraction of the human race. Kabir’s loyal servants, on the other hand, want to use Ethan to entrap FTI’s agents on Mars. Both groups can make Michael/Ethan/ENTHANAC’s life unbearable.

Ethan agrees to the one thing demanded by both FTI and Kabir’s minions. He will attempt to infiltrate Kabir’s ultra-secure systems (which what FTI wants, but will also unmask FTI’s operatives). That means getting access to Kabir’s own equipment. That in turn means finding a way into the isolated religious enclave on Mars where Kabir has lived in seclusion for years. All fairly straightforward. What Ethan isn’t prepared for is what he finds waiting for him in that seemingly lo-tech monastery.

Comments

The Soviets and the Red Chinese destroyed each other without taking the US with them. In fact, the US emerged from WWIII pretty much unscathed. Odd. Perhaps both the Soviets and the Chinese began the nuclear exchange under the impression the US was their ally. Or perhaps the US just got lucky. The rest of the planet chooses to believe that the US was being duplicitous, which is why Americans are generally known as “Backstabbers.”

The main role that the US plays in this novella is creating Ethan Ring. Most of the other characters are not American. Which is a refreshing change from much of the SF being written back then.

If I had read this proto-cyberpunk piece without knowing more than the author’s surname, I would have guessed that this was written by Vernor, not Joan. In many ways, this feels like a second look at the themes of 1966’s “Bookworm, Run!” Unlike Vernor back in 1966, Joan D. Vinge is aware of Moore’s Law. The story assumes that the powerful computers of the future will be small, not hulking Crays.

Weird that when people list proto-cyberpunk works, this novella is never mentioned. Could it be part of a massive conspiracy to erase women from SF history? Nah, that would be unbelievable.

Mother and Child

Covetous of pagan priestess Etaa’s fertility, King Merton carries her off in a raid, seemingly killing Etaa’s lover Hywel in the process. Unbeknowst to the humans, Etaa and Merton’s cultures are playing pieces in a conflict being played out between opposed factions of an alien culture. Etaa’s choices and those of the people she influences will change the destinies of two species.

Comments

Like a lot of stories from this era, some of the humans have a mysterious sense that gives them certain advantages over their human rivals, at the cost of being hated and feared for having that special perception. It’s something called “hearing,” which I am told is all the rage today.

If the first story was Joan’s take on a Vernor tale, this could be her reply to Poul Anderson’s No Truce With Kings. Whereas Anderson’s aliens were a monolithic entity, without any factions or political struggles, Vinge’s are divided over the question of how to best manage the humans. The aliens are unsure whether it would be better to focus on the potential benefits of contact or perhaps wise to take prudent steps to minimize the danger the aggressive species presents should it ever get its claspers on high technology.

Although Etaa drives the plot, she never gets to be the viewpoint character. The story is told by the men in her life: Hywel, Merton, and the alien hiding in plain sight.

General comments

Neither story is exactly what I would expect from Joan Vinge, although Mother and Child is closer to my Vinge stereotype. Both stories are worth reading.

This two-novella work is oddly reminiscent of Dell’s contemporaneous Binary Star books, each of which also collected two novellas. In the case of the Binary Star, each novella was by a different author1. I wonder if this began as a Binary Star publication and was then repurposed; Perhaps editor Jim Frenkel couldn’t settle on which of the two Vinges to use and decided to use both.

Used copies of Fireship are available here (Amazon) and possibly in your favourite used bookstores.

1: Binary Star 1 collected Fritz Leiber’s Destiny Times Three and Norman Spinrad’s Riding the Torch. Binary Star 2 collected Gordon Eklund’s The Twilight River and F. Paul Wilson’s The Tery. Binary Star 3 collected Ron Goulart’s Dr. Scofflaw and Isodore Haiblum’s Outerworld. Binary Star 4 collected Joan D. Vinge’s Legacy and Steven G. Spruill’s The Janus Equation. Binary Star 5 collected George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers and Vernor Vinge’s True Names.


I am no initiate into the arcane mysteries of publishing and hence do not know if the Dell series inspired Tor’s Tor Double series … although I would bet a bright shiny penny that both own their genesis to the ancient Ace Doubles series. The Dell and the Tor series were rather similar. They differed in that the Binary Stars books included commentary by each author on the other author’s piece. Another difference is that while the Dell series only lasted for five books, Tor kept their series running for thirty-six entries. Because Tor sometimes bound two novellas by the same author together, the Tors were marginally easier to shelve. No Solomonic decisions were required.


Comments

  • David Goldfarb

    As someone who knows the person who got the Tor Doubles line started, I can say quite definitely that the Ace Doubles were an inspiration for it. (I've never asked her about the Binary Stars line, but am inclined to think not.)

    • James Nicoll

      Who began the Tor Doubles line? And how did she propose readers shelve them?

      • Marius Gedminas

        You buy two copies, obviously, and shelve them in two places. A cunning trick to increase sales!

  • David Goldfarb

    Debbie Notkin. I don't know what solution she had to the problem of buyers who are OCD about shelving, if any.

    • James Nicoll

      You say OCD, I say sensible. I've lost books for years by misshelving them.

    • Robert Carnegie

      I don't have a catalogue of my collection, but I have put a book on shelf in mostly-by-author order (however, Star Trek is under S) which could have an alternate location, and then put a proxy, book-shaped object in the alternate location, with a label - e.g. a paper wrapper - that identifies the book and its actual sorted position.

      • Kse

        ^ I like this idea; symlinks for bookshelves.

        (or maybe this is more of a 301 Redirect?)

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