It’s always a tricky thing, reading obscure early works by great writers. Because you know they’re not going to be as good as the writer’s great later works, but you still hope that they’ll show some of that promise. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Consider Vernor Vinge’s The Witling and Tatja Grimm’s World .

Vinge’s works stopped being “early” in my mind with the Hugo-winning A Fire Upon the Deep in 1992, but you can make a reasonable case that The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime (both Hugo nominees) are reasonably mature works, and they were published in the mid-80s. So when you realize that The Witling was published in 1976, a full decade earlier than even those proto-mature books, you can easily understand that this is not Vinge at the height of his powers.

And boy howdy is it ever not. For most of the book, The Witling is a pretty generic story with explorers trapped on an exotic planet where the natives have an interesting psionic ability. The book spends a lot of time working out the implications of that ability in that old-fashionedy hard SF style. While it’s doing so it completely ignores more modern virtues like, oh, characterization. The result is a book that reads like something from the 1950s instead of the 1970s, a throwback to an earlier era of SF.

That throwback impression is heavily reinforced by the final two paragraphs of the book, which are just gobsmackingly, hideously, offensively sexist to a degree that it’s hard to credit. If it weren’t for these two paragraphs, I could recommend the book in a desultory if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing way; but with them... well, I don’t really see any reason to bother. There’s no sign at all from this book that Vinge would develop into one of SF’s great writers.

Which leaves us with Vinge’s other early work, Tatja Grimm’s World. This one is a bit weird, in that it was apparently written in 1969, but revised in 1987. I don’t know any details about the revision, but I’m going to assume it was pretty heavy, because this reads a lot more like 80s-era Vinge than it does like The Witling. The premise is much more interesting than The Witling, and ties into Vinge’s Singularity/Zones obsession; the characters are more well-developed and interesting; and the story and world-building are more than one-dimensional.

Those good things said, this is still clearly an “early work” in that the pacing is janky (it reads like a fix-up of short stories, which I believe is the case) and nothing here is particularly mind-blowing or innovative as it is in Vinge’s vastly better later works. Still, if it’s not great, you can see in it the seeds that would blossom into his great works.

If you’re a Vinge fan and have read all his later stuff, these aren’t really mandatory reading in any sense. But if you are interested in Vinge’s pre-Singularity novels, my recommendation is to go ahead and read Tatja Grimm’s World but avoid The Witling. (And if you haven’t read any Vinge, well, go get A Fire Upon the Deep already!)


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