I have read several of Vernor Vinge’s novels and found their quality to range anywhere from “good” to “outstanding.” Indeed, over the time period I read those books, I’ve come to regard him as a solid and reliable author, perhaps even a growing favorite. So it seemed like a no-brainer to get this 2001 volume, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, containing nearly every story he had published up to that time. After all, if he’s that great a writer, how could I go wrong? Surely there must be some decent stories, and maybe some real gems, residing inside this 464-page tome of tales, right? Well, umm, as it turns out…… no, not really. I honestly can’t think of another story collection or anthology that I was more thoroughly unimpressed with than this one. And I take no pleasure in saying this, believe me.
The thing is, I know Vinge can write, damn it; A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the finest space operas ever written, if you ask me, and his other novels aren’t too shabby either. That’s why I’m at a total loss in explaining or understanding this. When it comes to short stories, it’s as if every ounce of writing talent Vinge possesses flew out the window. I mean, a lot of these stories are downright ineptly written, and I can’t figure how they ever got published (a few were even bought by Campbell, which surprises me). It strikes me that with Vinge’s writing, the rule is: the longer the better. There’s a clear (at least clear to me) rise in the quality level as he goes from short story to novelette/novella to medium-length novel to longer novel. And so, the longer pieces of this collection, those around novella length, are the best of the lot — although I cautiously use “best” as a relative term.
The single piece that was of any interest to me was “The Blabber.” This is one of those longer stories I mentioned, and it was Vinge’s first foray into his “Zones of Thought” universe, the setting for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. It was written before either of those novels, although the events take place in a later time. While not that great a story in its own right, it was interesting to read the first instantiation of some of the ideas and characters that I would later fall in love with in Fire.
Similarly, this collection also contains Vinge’s novella “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” the first example of the near-future world that would later become the basis for Rainbows End. The same technological and social extrapolations are present, and for that this novella deserves some credit. However, “Fast Times,” unlike Rainbows End, fails to place those extrapolations in the context of anything approaching an interesting plot, and it ends up being just a day in the life of some junior high school kids, a showcase for their technological savvy. My advice: skip the story, read the book.
There were a couple more “from the same world” stories. One was “The Ungoverned,” set in the world of The Peace War. I thought that novel was pretty good; I thought this story was a complete waste of the paper it’s printed on. And “The Barbarian Princess” is a companion to Grimm’s World. I haven’t read that one, so I admit I skimmed over this story pretty quickly, but nothing about it inspired the barest flicker of my interest.
And none of the rest of these numerous stories did anything for me either. A story should have at least one thing going for it, whether it’s character development, or an exciting plot, or a fascinating idea to explore. Most of these stories failed on all counts, consisting of characters I didn’t care about, engaged in events that seemed ridiculous, in the service of ideas I thought were dull and uninspiring.
So, great novels and lousy short stories, from the same author? Can someone explain this to me? Are there really two Vinges, one doing the short writing and the other the longer projects? Did we gain an extra Vinge from some alternate universe, like in that old Star Trek episode with the evil Spock? If so, I hope the one writing the novels sticks around a long time, because I’ll keep on reading those. But I think I’m done with the short stuff.