Joan D. Vinge: Dreamfall

Review of the novel Dreamfall by Joan D. Vinge.

Dreamfall is the third in Vinge’s series about the telepath, Cat. It’s the last one written so far, though it’s not intended to be a trilogy (as far as I know); rather, Vinge has been unable to write until recently due to a car accident several years ago, as explained in her Wikipedia entry.

Dreamfall feels like a counterpoint to the second novel, Catspaw, in many ways: Catspaw explores the tension between Cat’s place among the lower class and the upper class, while Dreamfall explores the tension between his human heritage and his Hydran (alien) heritage. Also, Catspaw shows Cat trying to make use of his damaged telepathic abilities, while Dreamfall shows him struggling with trying to be a professional scholar/scientist in a difficult scenario. And, Catspaw takes place on Earth while Dreamfall takes place on an alien world.

Cat is part of a team which has been summoned to the planet Refuge, where his friend Kissindre Perrymeade’s family – Tau – heads a congomerate which is exploiting the resources of the planet. The team is there to study the cloud-whales, large gaseous beings which drift across the planet and whose thoughts crystallize and form large reefs in the oceans which exhibit strange properties. However, Refuge is also one of the worlds formerly controlled by the Hydrans, and the Hydran population has been marginalized and mostly restricted to a ghetto near the main human city. As this is Cat’s first opportunity to voluntarily contact Hydrans, one evening he heads into the Hydran town, where he immediately gets wrapped up in an ongoing Hydran resistance to the human occupation of the planet, placing him at odds with the Tau security chief of the planet, Borosage, as well as outing him as a human/Hydran hybrid.

The Hydran resistance has kidnapped a young human child and may be using him as leverage against the humans, escalating tensions and forcing Cat into becoming a negotiator between the two sides. Of course, there are more than two sides: Some humans are more hard-line than others, while the official Hydran government are not affiliated with the resistance. Many humans are of course frightened by the Hydrans, who have powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation, among others, but the humans also have far superior technology. Moreover, Cat is torn both between his feelings for Kissindre, and similar feelings for a Hydran woman whom he meets.

With all of these conflicting and contrasting elements, you’d think Dreamfall would be a cracking book full of adventure and emotion, but I found it to be quite slow and not very exciting. In another contrast with the previous book, Catspaw shows Cat reasoning and acting and having a profound effect on the people around him, while in Dreamfall he seems so at odds with himself that he’s far more reactive than active, struggling with his own emotions and unable to make decisions unless he’s forced into them.

For example, he gets linked to the resistance accidentally when he runs into the woman kidnapping the human child. As a result of this, Borosage’s superior forces Cat to be a negotiator with the Hydrans. Although the Hydrans are initially repulsed by this telepath whose abilities are turned off, he wins the trust of one of them, Miya, and finds himself conflicted between his feelings for her and for Kissindre. But he doesn’t really choose (or even fail to choose) between them; rather it seems like he gets railroaded by circumstance into picking one instead of the other, along with some pseudo-mystical argument about how Hydrans can tell when they’ve met the person they’re meant to be with. Through it all Cat seems bewildered and passive, which makes him a boring main character.

The first half of the book is all about building the tensions between the humans and the Hydrans, and it all comes to a head in the second half, which is more lively but only a little more satisfying. Dreamfall seems more focused on trying to craft a setting and evoke a mood (of lost causes and dying cultures). As in Catspaw the book climaxes with Cat ending up in an extremely dangerous situation, but rather than taking a big risk for a good reason, it seems like he made a few choices without really examining what he was doing which led him to a bad place. Vinge tries her utmost to convey the weight of the choices that Cat does make (he does eventually have to make the ultimate choice between being part of human society or Hydran society), but I was never convinced that he was making these decisions for good reasons, or that he was even particular aware of what he was choosing or why. The story is one of some fairly subtle shifts in Cat’s outlook and behavior, and I don’t think it managed to thread the needle of believability. The book does have a reasonable conclusion to its main conflicts (complete with a satisfying fate for one of the main heavies), but it doesn’t feel as meaningful as the ending of Catspaw.

Overall I don’t think Dreamfall either works well on its own, or deepens or broadens our understanding of Cat beyond what we saw in Catspaw. It seems to be trying to evoke more of a sense of wonder than Catspaw did, but the most wondrous elements – the cloud-whales – are mostly relegated to the background. Even the psionic elements are less interesting here than in the previous books, since Cat’s own telepathy is rarely active.

I found the book to be hard going, and not very rewarding for the effort. It’s a big step down from Catspaw, which is easily the best of the series to date.

Joan D. Vinge: Catspaw

Review of the novel Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge.

Catspaw is the sequel to Psion, following Vinge’s telepathic hero Cat on a new adventure. Cat became quite wealthy after his adventures in Psion, and used his wealth to see the galaxy and join a travelling school for the rich. While at the planet Monument, he’s kidnapped by the taMing family, who want to hire him as a telepath to protect one of their own, Lady Elnear, who’s been the subject of two assassination attempts. Since his money is running out, and the head of security, Braedee, says he can provide drugs to activate Cat’s dormant telepathy, he agrees. He travels to Earth and is inserted into high-class taMing culture, which makes neither him nor Elnear comfortable.

As the drugs slowly shake loose Cat’s telepathy, he realizes that he’s been placed in a very difficult position, not least because telepaths are hated and/or feared by most of humanity. Elnear is running for the Federation Council, the only body in humanspace with the power to act against the powerful shipping clans. The taMings themselves head Centauri Transport, one of the most powerful clans. Cat is mistrusted by most of the taMing family as soon as he arrives, despite his cover story as Elnear’s aide and surgery to alter his cat’s eyes and thus his abilities. He also learns that the taMing family has another psion in it besides Jule, but he doesn’t know who it is. And that’s just for starters.

Catspaw is a much better novel than Psion was: Rich and textured, with complex and believable characters. Cat is immediately much more interesting and sympathetic just because he became more mature and introspective in the time between the two novels. It’s an unfortunate commentary on Psion that what happened to Cat off-stage after it was more satisfying than what happened to him in it.

The book is filled with nifty characters, even the ones who don’t get a lot of screen time: Braedee starts off as a cyber-enhanced security chief but he ends up being notably reasonable and distinctive without being infallable, and he and Cat have an uneasy relationship. Daric taMing and his wife Argentyne are two of the major players, being somewhat at the fringe of the taMing family socially as well as owners of an avant-garde nightclub, which gives them feet in more than one world and thus natural allies for Cat, although ones he has a somewhat messy relationship with. Other taMing characters – Lord Charon and his wife Lazuli, and their children Jiro and Talitha – help add texture (and some drama) to the story. Really the most disappointing figure is Lady Elnear, who comes across as sort of a messiah figure and doesn’t really have a lot of depth to her. Protecting her is Cat’s main and original goal, and she opens doors for him among the classes he’s frequently with the taMings, but she doesn’t have a lot of character of her own. She’s mainly a foil and tool for Cat’s story.

Catspaw also has a nifty and complicated plot around which it’s built, and Cat’s relationship with the taMing family is woven into that plot. Lady Elnear’s life is indeed in danger, but the threat isn’t the simple one which Braedee originally explains it as. Cat is also put into a position to both improve the lot of telepaths in humanspace, and improve the lot of people bonded to Contract Labor, thanks to meeting the right people through Elnear. But of course his opportunity to do all this is threatened by the book’s main villain, who is far more adept at working in high society than Cat is, which forces Cat to make some difficult decisions and take a tremendous risk to defeat his foe.

Vinge doles out enough new-and-interesting ideas content over the course of the novel to make it feel more science fictional than just a society drama. The reader really feels Cat’s internal tension of being just sophisticated (and clueful) enough to survive in high society, while having the understanding of the underclass to have some resources that others in the taMing household don’t. He also learns something about his telepathy which lets him make some headway that no one else could have, setting up the book’s resolution. There are lots of details about the technological capabilities of Earth in Cat’s universe, too, of varying interest. By the standards of today’s science fiction it doesn’t feel quite as high-tech as it probably did when it was published, but seeing Vinge pull all the pieces together in a single novel is impressive.

The Cat novels sometimes seem to revel in the brutality Cat is subjected too, but Catspaw has the best balance of Cat being an active agent versus being a target of other peoples’ hatred, as well as a satisfying conclusion in which it feels like Cat really accomplishes something to make it all worthwhile. It’s certainly the best of the three books in the series (so far), and arguably worth reading even without first reading Psion.

Joan D. Vinge: Psion

Review of the novel Psion by Joan D. Vinge.

Psion is the first in Joan Vinge’s series of novels about a telepath living in a future starfaring society. Apparently she started writing Psion when she was a teenager, and published it years later after she’d established herself (for instance, it came out after she won a well-deserved Hugo Award for The Snow Queen). It was recently reprinted by Tor, but my copy is an earlier edition.

In the book’s universe, mankind has reached the stars, and encountered sentient alien life: The Hydrans, who are close enough to humans that the two species can interbreed, and whose psionic abilities start to emerge in humans with Hydran blood. But humanity also dominates and marginalizes the Hydrans, and is no kinder to their offspring. Our hero, Cat, is such a person, abandoned as a child in the Oldtown of the planet Ardattee, the center of the human Federation. His cat-like eyes are the only sign of his heritage, but after being arrested he narrowly escapes being forced into Contract Labor on another world by being recruited for a program to help psions understand and control their abilities. Hydrans have various psionic abilities, and Cat is profiled as a telepath, albeit one whose abilities have been repressed.

The program is run by a telekinetic, Siebeling, who develops a dislike for Cat, perhaps because Cat falls in love with his girlfriend, a teleporter and empath named Jule taMing. Cat slowly recovers his telepathic abilities even as he gradually learns how to live among more civilized people, and he learns that the Federation is using the program in part as a lure for Quicksilver, an immensely powerful psion who has been terrorizing other worlds. Quicksilver contacts Cat and Jule, but before they can be recruited Cat has a falling-out with Siebeling throws him back onto the streets and eventually into the arms of Contract Labor.

Cat is shipped across the galaxy where he ends up working in the mines of Cinder, the world which is the source of the rare mineral which makes space travel possible. There he both learns about his heritage, and what Quicksilver’s plans are. He also learns to stand up for both his friends and for what he feels is right, even if people on all sides hold him in very low esteem.

Psion has a lot of neat ideas, but it’s not a very good book. Cat is a one-dimensional protagonist, his only variation is that sometimes he gets a bit whiny about his bad fortune. That bad fortune and his background as a street rat means the story is hardly a rags-to-riches one, although you’d think that finding you’re a telepath would open doors for you, but Cat gets repeatedly beaten down, by Siebeling, by Contract Labor, and by almost everyone else around him. There’s no free lunch in this universe for anyone who isn’t rich.

The story is more one of a street rat who finds something worthwhile to live for (Jule, and his powers) and finds that his heart is in the right place, even at great cost to himself. But it’s something of a downer because Cat rarely has the chance to make decisions, and when he does he usually yanks the rug out from under himself due to his lack of sophistication or understanding of other people, but I’m not convinced that he really learned much about himself during the story. Cat runs through a series of situations mostly not of his making, but it feels a little too programmed. You feel for the guy, but not enough to make the book feel special.

I think Psion will mainly appeal to people who enjoy stories which are mainly lessons from the school of hard knocks. That’s not really my thing, so despite an interesting backdrop, I don’t recommend it.