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Sunday, October 16, 2011

cover of Vernor Vinge's 'The Witling'

Ajao Bjault and Yoninne Log-Wot are an archeologist and space pilot team form Novamerika doing an initial investigation of the planet Giri, using cameras and microphones and computer technology to learn the language and the culture of the local people, who seem to be primitive miners and farmers. Their companion colony ship is on its way down to join them on the surface, in spite of Ajao's concerns that they don't understand the culture enough, or their strange roads, or a whole class of words... And he turns out to be right, because those words they didn't understand were the ones for the Talent all the mammals on this planet have, in varying degrees: seng (a kind of far-sensing), reng (teleportation), and keng (a kind of remote-killing by jumbling a person's insides). The ferry landing goes drastically wrong, since they underestimated the power and sophistication of the local people, and Ajao and Yoninne are captured and become caught up in the political machinations of the Summer and Winter Kingdoms. Their one initial ally is prince Pelio-- heir to the throne, but himself a "witling", with so little of the Talent that he is considered a cripple, and needs to be attended by his watchbear, Samadhom, for protection from others.

So many details of this alien culture are so well-thought out and it is fascinating to discover, with the outsiders Ajao and Yoninne, how the Giri Talent works, what its strengths and limitations are, and as they begin to figure out the potential for combining their space-faring technology (which the summerfolk consider "magic") with the teleportation Talent of the Giri, particularly the super-talented Guildsmen, such as Thengets del Prou, who can seng anywhere on the planet and teleport rocks down from the moon if they want to. In fact, early on Ajao and Yoninne figure out that the Talent may make FTL travel possible and pave a way to reconnect the far-flung and lost colonies from Homeworld. When Ajao and Yoninne are transported to the capitol, they ride in a boat that makes many small teleportations from lake to lake, and the puzzle out the details of how the teleportation works: they exchange one mass for another, and need to slice along common quantities, hence the common water transit pools; they can only teleport so far in a single jump due to the rotational speed of the planet - or from a spot in the northern hemisphere to the same spot in the southern hemisphere. The details of this explain the roads that Ajao and Yoninne couldn't quite make sense of (along the equator), and also accounts for the strange ways the countries are organized-- the summer kingdom, centralized more around the equator, and the winter kingdom, taking up both poles.

When we first meet the pair of explorers, Ajao is thinking to himself that he'll be glad of other company because Yoninne is not very nice company and not very pleasant to look at-- too stocky, not enough curves. However, to the stocky Pelio, Yoninne is a graceful, alien beauty-- and he is entranced with both her looks and her amazing confidence in spite of the fact that she is a witling like him. His interest in her turns out to be a very good thing for all of them, in the long run-- since the warring powers of Giri are all too interested in the gear that they recovered from Ajao and Yoninne, tools which any person could use without needing the talent of a Guildman-- potentially upsetting the balance among the ruling countries, the small but powerful Guild, and the large proletariat.

Eventually, Ajao and Yoninne meet up with the Guildsman Thengets del Prou and figure out a plan to get back to their isolated telemetry station so they can get a mesage back to Novamerika (while all this is going on, Ajao and Yoninne are slowly being poisoned by the heavy metals everywhere on Giri including their food). The problem with getting there is that the telemetry station is on an island out in the middle of the ocean-- too far to jump safely at once, and even they had time to take a boat it wouldn't be safe because the large ocean creatures would keng them before they got anywhere near it. But, when Bjault looks at a map projection of the planet which initially makes no sense to him (until he figures out that is conveys exactly what a teleporter would need to know about distances), he figures out a crazy, clever plan to combine their technology with the Giri Talent to get out to that telemetry station. The plan is told to various people and discussed, but never actually explained to the reader until it is nearly complete-- which I found a little bit annoying, although it was fun to guess at (and I did figure out part of it).

The ending seemed a little bit abrupt, and some of the chase and fighting leading up to the crazy daring plan to get to the island station seemed to go on a bit long, but over all I quite enjoyed this fascinating story and its world.

Title:The Witling
Author:Vernor Vinge
Date published:1976
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:220


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