Joan (Carol) D(ennison) Vinge

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Richard Law

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[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 lucky."

Optimistic fatalism is the prevailing attitude in the work of Vinge. Her strength is the romance, a genre older than the novel—"a fact which has developed," in Northrop Frye's words, "the historical illusion that it is something to be outgrown, a juvenile and undeveloped form." Without denying the existence of evil or the data of suffering, this tender-minded author highlights innocence and beauty, which belong to human experience as surely as do their opposites. She recalls treasured impressions—allusions to fairy tales and childhood memories are frequent—and commends the endearing or admirable traits in men, women, and children. Underlying her sentimental science fiction fables is a steadfast belief in the power of the human spirit to endure pain, promote decency, and preserve love.

Whether it is a reflective piece, a long exotic fantasy like The Snow Queen, or a juvenile space adventure, nearly every work by Joan Vinge is a love story, sentimental and idealized, but not to be confused with silly television and film servings. Most of her characters who love are not glamorous or handsome; some are permanently disabled, some are deformed, some are freaks. They have been losers and might never be much better than survivors; and their love, no matter how poetic, will not dissolve the hard conditions of existence. Love is not a panacea, not perpetual ecstasy, and not a magic charm in Vinge's fiction. It is emotional interdependence, mutual commitment, caring and sacrifice shared. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978) is a light space-adventure entertainment. It also is designed to address its epigraph from Ecclesiastes: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labours. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up." The ideal of unity in adversity is sensitively exhibited by two fugitives, Shadow Jack, a certified defective, and Bird Alyn, rejected as an ugly, ungainly cripple. Mutual empathy upholds them: "She had comforted him, out of compassion and her own need; his need had bound him to her, and made them friends." They and other couples in Joan Vinge's works illustrate the concept that "the unifying element, the common bond of need that join(s) every human being, could be used as a force against disintegration and decay." (pp. 16-17)

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt is a marriage and family fairy tale. It is true that for sentimental style of expression, the poetic allusions, soothing reflections, the regard for innocence and domesticity, for children and gentle animals, nearly all of Vinge's science fiction has a fairy tale ambience. But the need for faith and hope and the benefits of human interdependence reflected in her works are true-to-life. Joan Vinge speaks to the imagination in a transitional age that psychotherapist Rollo May diagnoses as suffering "bankruptcy of inner values." For lack of love and will, the contemporary world is schizoid. Those attributes are necessary for people who yearn to exercise "the conjunctive emotions and processes." The source of love and will is care, concern, compassion….

The tough-minded science fiction writers [such as Joanna Russ and Alice Sheldon] expose the thoughtless assumptions and philosophical rationalizations supporting the age-old sexist order. The tender-minded imagine models of love in a better order—at least a retreat—wherein harmony between the sexes is cultivated. (p. 18)

Richard Law, "Science Fiction Women: Victims, Rebels, Heroes," in Patterns of the Fantastic, edited by Donald M. Hassler, Starmont House, 1983, pp. 11-20.∗

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Carolyn Caywood