Vinge was one of the last SF authors I read. I was deeply into the genre as a teenager, and read my way through massive piles of the stuff late at night when I probably should have been doing something better or at least more social with my time. I eventually got tired of the bug-eyed monsters, predictable plots, and last-minute deux ex machina resolutions based on technobabble too common in SF, not to mention endless books by older balding men filled with attractive young women who throw themselves at older balding men (not that this is unique to SF, mind you, but it’s still a pet peeve). I eventually found a few writers, like Vinge and Iain Banks, who had some ideas about utopian future societies which seemed worth exploring via science fiction, and read them through my early twenties. By the time I was out of university, though, I’d lost interest even in them, and moved on to other types of writing (as seen in this blog). It’s hard for me to tell sometimes when I give up on an author I’d been following whether it’s their writing style or my tastes which have changed over the years. So, when a friend moving out of town offered me a copy of this collection while clearing off her bookshelf, I accepted.
What was it like? Far better than most of what I read in high school, but still full of awkward foreshadowing, long scientific explanations of basic technology (when was the last time you had one of those?), and last-paragraph plot twists added at the suggestion of an editor (as confirmed by Vinge’s brief introductions to the stories). That’s the thing about SF: it purports to be about life in the Alpha Centauri system but if anything sentient is actually out there, they’ll have their own literature completely unimaginable to us. Science fiction is interesting insofar as it serves as a lens on our own contemporary society, the only one its authors can actually know. By this measure Vinge has some near-future stories which are perfectly decent attempts, but he’s no Ursula K. Le Guin. I wish more authors saw technological advancement as a means and not as a goal in its own right, and used their alternate worlds to focus on the human condition on our own.