The Gutter Level View of an Interstellar Plutocracy

Psion — Joan D. Vinge
Cat, book 1


This is the book that made me ask on Facebook if it makes sense to talk about an Andre Norton lineage of SF writers. In many ways it’s what you might get if Norton had been a better writer. In others, it’s what you might get if the X-Men used a draft to gain recruits.

When we meet him, Cat is a half-Hydran, half-human1 street kid on the run from the press-gangs of the interstellar corporations that run most of human space. Swept up despite his best efforts, he is spotted as a potential psionic and dropped into a very special training course run by Seibeling, who would be the Charles Xavier of this story if he wasn’t closer to being a kapo.

Sadly for Cat, this isn’t a universe where poors get to enjoy self-actualization programs for free. Not only is being IDed as a psion at best a lateral shift from being a despised half-breed gutter rat but the purpose of the program is to create a task force of psions who can be used to infiltrate and undermine The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants Rubiy’s plans to organize dissatisfied psions into a force able to take Cinder away from the Federation.

The security on the program is terrible and Rubiy is completely aware of it, what it is for and who is in it. From his point of view, it’s great because it’s just another took for him to subvert and use.

Cinder is a planet-massed post-stellar object in the Crab Nebula, the main source of telhassium, the computronium on which the Federation runs, and it’s a heck of lever for someone to use to blackmail the Federation. Rather like Dune or Trouble on Titan, the people who run the place have decided that the best way to control it is to treat the workers on whose labour they depend as badly as possible, giving Rubiy a lot of material to work with.

Unsurprisingly for a kid who has been living on the street as long as he can remember, Cat is poorly socialized and he manages to get himself ejected from the program in fairly short order. Since this is a comparatively short book, this lands him on an express train to plotsville, dropped into cold-sleep and shipped out to Cinder to spend his days mining telhassium while dodging the natives nobody seems to have questioned would be on a world that until about seven or eight thousand years ago was part of a star.

Cat spends enough time as a miner to get a good idea of what that is like (being a street kid was better) and to learn what’s up with the natives before getting sucked back into the struggle between the Federation, that corrupt and vast organization that is the only hope of billions for something like rule of law, and Rubiy, nihilisitic, self-centered but also in the short run a lot closer to looking like an ally for the oppressed psions than anything the Federation cares to offer, with Seibeling’s organization and the poor natives of Cinder caught up in the struggle as well.

Psiren: This picks up shortly after Psion. Cat, still suffering the consquences of how Psion’s plot played out, encounters a Hydran woman a lot further down the slope of despair than he is, which has left her even more vulnerable to exploitation than Cat is and Cat was a slave for a while. She doesn’t see a way out for herself aside from death, leaving Cat as the only one interested in her fate willing to actually help her.

The Tor edition also includes an introduction Joan D. Vinge but since I am cheaping out and reading the copies I already own, I have not read it (This also means if there are egregious errors in turning this from book to ebook like the rn > m issue I have run into elsewhere, I will not be aware of it.

Having mocked The Phoenix Legacy for the way it feigns concern for the lower orders while choosing an assortment of aristocrats as protagonists, I will give this points for picking someone from the bottom of the heap2, something that isn’t very common in SF. The great and powerful still hold all the cards but at least in this that’s not presented as the best one should hope for.

That said, there is a certain level of learned helplessness where the alien Hydrans are concerned. Humans or at least some humans feel kind of badly that humans destroyed most of the Hydran culture while they were stealing bits for themselves, something that mirrors anxieties in SF about the treatment of Native Americans but doing anything that’s actually helpful or useful to the Hydrans is not really on the menu. Kindly doctor Seibeling married one but it worked out about as well for her as Pocahantas marrying Rolfe did for Pocahantas. Actually, worse. I think we’re supposed to see Seibeling as a sympathetic character but I have to admit if at some point he had been shanked by an outraged psion, I would not have cried.

Speaking of the Hydrans, there are a number of elements most easily explained by the fact Cat is an ignorant street kid or by invoking what Kung Fu Monkey called “You uncurious motherfuckers” when discussing Lost.

A: Why does nobody wonder why something that was part of a star in historical times has humanoid natives? That’s answered by “You uncurious motherfuckers”; knowing the answer won’t make anyone more money.

B: Some people think Earth was settled by telepathic mute Hydrans. Some people also think homeopathy works. I don’t have an issue with the idea people might believe this, especially someone like Cat who has never been educated, but it is nonsense. Humans and hominids on Earth have left fossil traces going back millions of years and their relatives go back even farther.

C: How is it the Hydrans never stumbled over Earth, given that they had a vast empire and their nearest colony (Beta Hydra) isn’t that far away? Well, maybe they did but I cannot imagine they’d do anything with Earth aside from drawing a bright red circle around its position on a map and warning people not to go there. It’s good for Terrans and bad for Hydrans that they aren’t able to envision just running an asteroid into Earth.

Psiren” was published in 1981 in New Voices 4 while Psion was published in 1982 by Delacorte Press. It would not have been out of place published in 1961 or even 1951, except the quality of the prose is much better than I would expect from a book of an older vintage. Specifically, I am reminded of such Andre Norton books as Night of Masks or the Forerunner series3. It’s not the psionics angle, although that helps, but the choice to tell the story from the point of view of someone so far down the pecking order that the closest to a happy ending they can reasonably hope for is to reach a place where they can imagine someday having a happy ending. As I said over on Facebook, the difference between Norton and someone like Van Vogt is in something like a Van Vogt if our oppressed hero tried very hard, he could become President of all the King-Popes, whereas in a Norton, they might move up from criminal squalor to a respectable blue-collar job.

It’s clear from the introduction in New Voices 4 that Vinge already has the Cat series sketched out in her mind and from Psiren that she knew where Psion was going to end up.

If you would like to read Psion, the 25th anniversary edition is available here.

1: AAAAUUUUUUGGGGGHHHH. We will be returning to this point.

2: There is a character from a high-ranking family but due to the way society is set up she has all the standing of the mad cousin the family keeps locked up in the attic.

3: Which admittedly ran from 1960 to 1985. And O’Donnell’s Flinger series, which features similarly exploited psionics (albiet with a much better reason for treating them the way they do than ‘because we can’), was roughly contemporary with Psion.

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