Joan (Carol) D(ennison) Vinge Essay - Critical Essays

Vinge, Joan (Carol) D(ennison)


Joan (Carol) D(ennison) Vinge 1948–

American short story writer and novelist.

Vinge is the recipient of Hugo Awards for her novelette "Eyes of Amber" (1977) and her novel The Snow Queen (1980). She writes both adult and young adult fiction and has adapted as a children's book the popular "Star Wars" movie, Return of the Jedi (1983). Her characters are usually outcasts from society. Like her adult works, Vinge's first young adult novel, Psion (1982), places as much emphasis on the psychological turmoil of the protagonist as on the suspense generated by external action. Cat, the protagonist of Psion, is a teenage loner whose telepathic powers alienate him from his planet Ardattee. Caught in a power struggle between two interplanetary civilizations, Cat must battle with his own isolation and loneliness as well as with enemy forces.

The redeeming virtue of love and communication is a recurrent theme in Vinge's work. Carl Yoke observes that the alienation of her characters is not an end in itself, but rather a necessary step in their movement toward transcendence. Through love and communication, Vinge's characters overcome their estrangement and may achieve the power to change society. Yoke further comments: "Their common enemy is often the values of the society in which they find themselves. From the exertion of their mutual struggle, they forge new value systems and come to a more complete realization of their own potentials." Thus, Vinge's long fantasy The Snow Queen (1980) is both a traditional science fiction battle of evil against good and a story of the love between two individuals alienated from society. Eventually, the force of their love results in the successful overthrow of the corrupt Winter Queen.

Vinge's stories are characteristically set in a fully realized, minutely detailed world. Critics often praise the skill with which Vinge creates the believable and complex social structures of her futuristic world. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978) exemplifies Vinge's close attention to societal values. This novel concerns the war between a fallen democracy and a socialist military society, both of which are contrasted to the protagonist's idealized society founded on complex kinship and marriage ties. Although some critics feel that the multiple levels in Vinge's stories are not always successful, most find her work thematically rich, tightly constructed, and psychologically and sociologically complex.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)

Publishers Weekly

This impressive debut volume ["Fireship"] is composed of two novelettes…. [The title story is] a tightly constructed adventure story, told with a deft, light touch. "Mother and Child," the second story, traces the maturation of a young woman, a priestess, in a medieval type of world where humans are manipulated "for their own good" by benevolent aliens. This story works on a number of levels and is a rich reading experience. The two tales are absolutely dissimilar, and they are both absolutely marvelous. (pp. 75-6)

A review of "Fireship," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 214, No. 19, November 6, 1978, pp. 75-6.

Robin G. Adams

Fireship actually houses two distinct mini-novels, Fireship and Mother and Child. Both are evidence of Vinge's rightful place as one of s-f's luminaries. They are both well written, highly enjoyable works, and demonstrate the variety of style found in science fiction.

Fireship is a light-hearted adventure story…. Mother and Child is a more thoughtful work. A post-holocaust tribal priestess, born with hearing and perfect vision into a deaf and nearly-blind world, bears a child that could bridge the gap between her tribe and its warring neighbor, and restore to them all the knowledge of their ancestors. It is a sensitive portrayal, skillfully handled from the viewpoints of several characters. Together the two works are an excellent choice for any s-f collection, or a good place to start one.

Robin G. Adams, in a review of "Fireship," in Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, Vol. XIII, No. 3, April, 1979, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly

[With "Eyes of Amber and Other Stories"] Joan Vinge has put together a rewarding collection of six carefully crafted, emotionally rich stories. Included are her first, the bittersweet "Tin Soldier," in which a cyborg (a man with artificial parts) falls in love with a spacefaring woman; and her latest, "Mediaman," an action/love story set in the universe of Vinge's first novel…. Most moving of all, however, are "View from a Height,"… which concerns a woman who volunteers for a one-way trip out into the universe; and "The Crystal Ship," in which a young woman's life is redeemed by an alien who is an outcast from his own people.

A review of "Eyes of Amber and Other Stories," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 216, No. 6, August 6, 1979, p. 90.

Anthony R. Lewis

[The title novella in Fireship] is a competent adventure story. The protagonist, whom we do not meet until late in the story, has by his existence called into being an antagonist. This antagonist would normally be considered the hero. He is a human/computer symbiosis, not a cyborg. The computer personality is more appealing than the human in most aspects. The "hero" gets involved in interplanetary intrigue, fights assorted villains, wins in the end, and gets to bed a female. But the culmination is not that of the typical super-agent story. Victory is achieved by the (not-quite Hegelian) synthesis of the protagonist (villain) and the antagonist (our hero) which suggests a higher order of human/computer symbiosis is possible…. [By itself, this story] would not justify the book.

The second novella, Mother and Child, more than justifies the existence of this book…. The story is this: an alien planet, with two cultures. One is agricultural worshipping the Mother Goddess (the Kotaane), the other is urban and patriarchal (the Neaane). The Kotaane have an additional sense, which is either absent in the Neaane or is suppressed by deliberate mutilation. These cultures are coming into conflict. Mixing into this is a second group of aliens, the Colonial Service. A Kotaane priestess, pregnant by her smith husband, is stolen by Neaane forces and becomes concubine to their king. Her subsequent life, childbirth, exile, and recovery...

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Publishers Weekly

There are memorable characters [in "The Snow Queen"] and a complex, suspensefully orchestrated plot that builds with steady inevitability from a slow start to a symphonic finale. A few may be put off by Vinge's unabashedly romantic approach—which does lead to scattered spots of overwriting—but many more will be captivated. That, plus an expert use of familiar SF concepts, could take the book past its certain popularity with the genre audience to success in the larger market beyond…. "The Snow Queen" is a triumph for a fine writer who is still growing and will someday surpass her achievement here.

A review of "The Snow Queen," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 217, No. 5,...

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James Gunn

[The Snow Queen] has a complicated plot, whose complications—unfortunately for the success of the novel—unfold so deliberately that its final shape is clear only in retrospect. Moon Dawntreader, the protagonist, is a young woman born to fisherfolk of the Summer people. She is in love with her cousin, Sparks. Both were conceived at the last Festival in Carbuncle. Moon, though she does not know it, is the clone of Arienrhod, the Snow Queen of the title, who rules the Winter stage of Tiamat and has prolonged her life through the slaughter of the gentle, immortal Mers and now hopes to prolong her reign, even after her death in the ritual that marks the coming of summer, by making her clone the Summer Queen…....

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Lindsy Van Gelder

This delicious book [The Snow Queen] is a futuristic translation of the girl-rescues-boy fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen: the love story of Moon and Sparks….

This complicated, lyrical, anti-colonialist novel works as first-rate adventure, but its greatest achievement is the creation of a literal world of characters: human, robot, amphibian, male and female; from castes, tribes, and political systems across a galaxy. Not since I read the Oz books 25 years ago have I been so drawn into a writer's total reality.

Lindsy Van Gelder, in a review of "The Snow Queen," in Ms., Vol. IX, No. 1, July, 1980, p. 29.

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Jack Sullivan

["The Snow Queen"] gets nicely off the ground several times only to be dragged down again and again by banality. The best passages occur in the exposition itself, as Miss Vinge establishes the sociological and cosmic rules of the planet Tiamat, with its unstable twin suns, its Winter and Summer Queens, its Black Gates to other worlds, its outer region "where space was twisted like a string, tied into knots so that far became near and time was caught up in the loop."

Unfortunately, Miss Vinge's human and alien characters speak such awful gibberish that it's difficult to keep one's attention on the world they inhabit…. The worst offender is the heroine, Moon Dawntreader, the Queen's clone, who...

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Richard Lubbock

Science, religion, magic, moral philosophy, anthropology, and indeed almost all the arts and sciences intermingle most deliciously in Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen….

The author describes herself as "an anthropologist of the future," by which she means alternate universes, and her work certainly contains strong echoes of Margaret Mead, Sir James Fraser and innumerable other strains of scientific, social and literary thought.

The Snow Queen is a fantastical elaboration of Hans Christian Andersen's folk tale of the same name. It records events on Tiamat, a world which exists in two states of being, Summer and Winter, alternating every century and a half. The Change is...

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Christopher Priest

[With The Snow Queen we] are in the presence … of a successor to [Frank Herbert's] Dune and [Ursula Le Guin's] The Left Hand of Darkness.

However, comparisons are odious…. Because perhaps it ought to be said … that The Snow Queen is the quintessence of a certain kind of science fiction, a journey as far into the heartlands of the genre as it is possible to go without starting to come back. The publishers call this "worldcraft," and it is a form of novel that more and more sf writers are essaying these days: "worldcraft" is the depiction of an entire planet or world, described politically, culturally, geographically, sociologically, scientifically and sometimes...

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Sally Estes

When 16-year-old Cat, [protagonist of Psion] …, gets a chance to "volunteer" for a psi research project, he embarks on a tumultuous series of experiences leading not only to the awakening of his telepathic powers and the discovery that he can care for others but also to his brutal enslavement and near death. Finally accepting his dual human-alien heritage, Cat experiences an incredible heightening of his extraordinary psionic power when he faces a potent, power-hungry psion in a deadly confrontation that not only destroys Cat's enemy but also Cat's psionic power. In her first novel for young people,… [Joan D. Vinge] pulls no punches in fleshing out a viable, grim, multi-planetary civilization as the setting...

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Carl Yoke

But she wore the nomad's tunic she had brought back with her from Persiponë's, the only clothing she owned, its gaudy color as alien as she suddenly felt herself, among the people who should have been her own.

These lines from the "footrace" scene in Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen clearly express the psychological alienation of Dawn Moontreader Summer, the novel's heroine. Though she stands in a crowd of people from her own clan, she feels that she is an outsider, that she is somehow divorced from the very culture in which she was raised. This is the fundamental experience of a person alienated, estranged, or disenfranchised. (p. 103)


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Carolyn Caywood

[Return of the Jedi—The Storybook Based on the Movie] simplifies the plot but covers the main action and reveals the crucial secrets…. It is an adequate vehicle for those who want to recall the pleasure of the movie, but those who have not seen the film will find the book disappointing. The excitement, suspense and sense of wonder have not made the transition to print. Though Jabba the Hutt is still repulsive, the Emperor is incongruously lacking in menace and even the Ewoks lose some of their appeal.

Carolyn Caywood, in a review of "Return of the Jedi: The Storybook Based on the Movie," in School Library Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1, September, 1983, p. 129....

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Richard Law

[Joan D. Vinge is a] science fiction writer attuned to Existentialism, but her isolated or beleaguered characters survive what William Barrett calls the modern "encounter with Nothingness." A representative character is Emmylou Stewart in the homiletic story, "View from a Height." Lacking natural immunities essential for life on Earth, Emmylou volunteered for permanent duty as an explorer isolated in an observatory in space. Being "trapped in the arc of blackness … meaningless, so insignificant," she falls into depression but recovers and expresses valiant acquiescence: "We're all on a one-way trip into infinity. If we're lucky we're given some life's work we care about, or some person. Or both, if we're very...

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