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Fireship, Joan D Vinge

May 20, 2014

fireshipFireship, Joan D Vinge (1978)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Like so many SF fans, my first exposure to Joan D Vinge’s work was via her wonderful Hugo-winning novel The Snow Queen (1980). Eventually I found a copy of her first published novel, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978), which had an intriguing premise but a less than satisfactory delivery (poor characterizations, pacing, etc). The collection Fireship (1978) is comprised of two novellas: the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated ‘Fireship’ (1978) and one of her earlier works, ‘Mother and Child’ (1975).

The title story is the lesser of the two despite its (dare I say dubious) award nominations. It’s a light-hearted and unchallenging proto-cyperpunk novella. I would characterized the work as “popcorn SF”. Its plot is straight from the pulps with some late 1970s technological updates and told in a vigorous and readable manner.

The second novella – ‘Mother and Child’ – is more a product of 1970s anthropological science fiction. It attempts (with intermittent success) to develop a premise, a culture clash between humans groups and alien “observers,” which exudes social commentary. Although nowhere near as eloquent as Michael Bishop or Le Guin who are true proponents of literary prose and though-provoking scenarios, Vinge’s ‘Mother and Child’ is easily worth the price of the volume for any fans of her more famous work and 1970s social SF in general.

‘Fireship’: A single human body contains three distinct personas. First, there is Michael Yarrow, a generally unintelligent man with little ambition. The second is ETHANAC, a super computer whose entire circuitry is easily hidden in the structure of a portable case. When jacked into Yarrow’s body “his” voice “speaks”. When this machine/man conjunction occurs between Yarrow and ETHANAC a separate altogether different persona emerges, Ethan Ring. Yarrow was selected for this dangerous experiment because of his lack of ambition and disposable nature. However, Yarrow’s transformation – into the altogether more manly/intelligent/and ambitious Ethan Ring – allows him to escape from the confines of Earth to Mars. The settlers on Mars are comprised of a vast assortment of various cults and other renegade individuals like Ethan desperate to escape the increasing totalitarianism of Earth.

Post-WWIII, Russia and other superpowers have been mostly wiped out. Two forces gain hold sway in the changed world, the US and the Arab states due to their natural resources. The Arabs are one of the key proponents of investments in the Mars colony. Khorram Kabir is one of these “sheikh-like” investors who establishes a lavish and highly profitable casino, aptly named Xanadu. During an intensive bought of gambling where ETHANAC took over and acquired vast sums of money, Ring encounters the luscious Hanalore Takhashi. Little does Ring know that she works for a shadowy organization that seeks to blackmail him unless he hacks Kabir’s computer network!

I enjoyed the idea of the Arab states taking an active role in colonization (just think of all the massive building projects and investments in Manchester City and other teams in the EPL princes and sheikhs from the region are engaged in). This reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) where one of the main groups of colonists are from the Middle East. The shifts between the weakly Michael Yarrow, the more manly Ethan Ring, and the super computer ETHANAC are effectively done. The proto-cyperpunk premise filled with computer hacking, portable super computers, man-machine hybrids is entertaining but forgettable.

‘“Mother and Child’: A three-part novella where each section is told from the perspective of male character whose life becomes increasingly intertwined with Etaa, a human “priestess” of Mother (ie, the personification of the planet). It is slowly revealed that the humans are not on Earth but some planet colonized long before. A mutation causing plague wiped out the majority of the colonists and destroyed many of their senses. Etaa’s people, who placed the mother as the center of the society, hold priestess with “special abilities” (ie, hearing) in high regard.

The first portion of the novella follow’s Hywel, Etaa’s mate, and his childhood and the events leading up to a disaster. Etaa’s people, the Kotaane (“Mother’s children”) are bordered by the Neaane (“Motherless ones”). The Neaane king Merton steals Etaa from her spouse and rapes her. His society is a more traditional male-centric one – with pseudo-medieval inspired social systems – where an hair is of paramount importance. Merton himself the narrator of the second portion. He does not believe in his “gods” who take for the form of humans and physically wander among the Neaane… Despite his initial treatment of Etaa, whom he wants to bear his heir, he begins to feel for her. And, in her own way, Etaa does as well (she thinks that Hywel has been killed). Vinge’s characterization of Etaa, who despite her rape/imprisonment/and Merton’s less than honourable intentions, begins to see virtue in her captor strikes me as odd. The third portion is from the perspective of one of the gods who in reality, is neither male nor female.

The most effective element of the novella is the shifting male narration on Etaa, the connecting character in all three parts. Hywel is clearly a good man yet his goals are simplistic, he seeks to recover Etaa who has been stolen from him rather than change resolve the culture clash between the Gods and the Neaane and Kotaane. King Merton is much more flawed although again, yet his beliefs (or lack thereof) about the Gods are instrumental in changing Etaa’s view of the world. The final “male” God who “rescues” has represents a people desperate to modify the make human society malleable and easy to “guide.” He too is transformed by his “friendship” with Etaa.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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