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.