Joan Vinge Criticism - Essay

Anthony R. Lewis (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Fireship, in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. XCIX, No. 10, October, 1979, pp. 165-66.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis favorably reviews Fireship, describing it as a story of "love and loyalty and integrity and courage. "]

Here are two novellas: Fireship [and] Mother and Child. . . The cover blurbs say that these are short novels, but I say they're novellas. The first, which appeared here (December 1978), and from which the book takes its title 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 villians, 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. . . .

The second novella, Mother and Child, more than justifies the existence of this book. It should have been the title story but marketing has shown that the average SF book buyer is more...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Carl Yoke (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Alienation to Personal Triumph: The Science Fiction of Joan D. Vinge," in The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It, edited by Tom Staicar, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982, pp. 103-30.

[In the following excerpt, Yoke examines the theme of alienation in Vinge's stories. ]

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. Any doubts about the nature of Moon's feelings are quickly erased by a closer examination of the scene, which Vinge has skillfully filled with cluès to induce such a conclusion.

The first comes as Moon waits for the race to begin. She suddenly feels a "tension" wrap around her "like tentacles," and to avoid it, she moves to the front of the forming field of runners. Though she believes the tension has been generated by a "certainty" that she will be chosen Summer Queen, that very possibility is born from the differences between her and the Summers. The tension she feels is symptomatic of the anxiety felt by an alienated person, and withdrawal from it is the typical reaction to it.

But there are other clues to establish Moon's alienation. While struggling to maintain her balance amid "the jostling mob of colored ribbons and eager Summer faces," for example, she describes them as "strangers." Moreover, while they are dressed in traditional Summer holiday garments, she is not. She wears instead a heavy Winter's nomad tunic. Though she is struck by the irony of the situation, she somehow feels it is appropriate. Further, to disguise her resemblance to Arienrhod, the reigning Winter Queen and her biological mother, she covers her head with a scarf. The other runners are bareheaded. And, since she displays no family totem as the others do, some of the Summers challenge her right to run, which forces her to bare the sibyl symbol tattooed on her throat. In addition to identifying the sibyls, the tattoo, a barbed trefoil, is the ancient symbol for biological contamination.

If nothing else, the fact that she is a sibyl would alienate her from everyone else. Viewed as seers by some and as witches by others, sibyls are simultaneously revered and feared. Obscured by time and superstition, the actual function of the sibyls is as vehicles for the transmission of Old Empire culture. When the Empire collapsed because of civil war, a group of selfless scientists, hoping for a rapid return to civilization, created a massive databank of knowledge in every area of human concern and genetically altered certain humans so they could tap into it. Able to pass this ability on to their children, these individuals (sibyls when trained in the use of their gift) suffer from a peculiar side effect. They can infect other humans with their blood, producing madness in some and death in others. This effect has given rise to the legend that it is death both to kill a sibyl and to love one. In turn, this has caused the Winters to ban all sibyls from the capital city of Carbuncle.

Yet another mark of Moon's alienation occurs when she is struck by the irony of her parentage as she waits for the race to begin. She was neither her mother's child nor Arienrhod's. As the clone of Arienrhod, she was raised by another, a Summer. Thus, she has roots in both cultures. This, plus the fact that she is a child without a father, makes her unlike anyone else in the crowd. It is the sudden recognition of her uniqueness and her divorce from both cultures that prompts her to question what she is doing there.

Another clue to Moon's alienation is found in her reaction as Fate Ravenglass performs the final bit of ritual in the choosing of the Summer Queen at the end of the scene. A part of her mind separates from the rest, and while she participates in the ceremony, she also experiences near panic from her sudden doubt that she will be chosen. Momentarily, she falls into "Transfer," that state sibyls experience when they are in contact with the Old Empire computer, then she is snapped to wakefulness and finds herself in Fate's body. She watches the candidates for Summer Queen file by, but she is barely able to see them because of Fate's near blindness. Then, she sees herself stumbling forward, supported by two other women, and she reaches out and masks herself. Immediately she is snapped back into her own body, and she realizes that Fate is also a sibyl. This experience of separateness is schizophrenic and that is exactly where modern psychiatry classifies cases of extreme self-alienation. Moreover, she also realizes that indeed she is being controlled, that she is being programmed through her experiences, and that her destiny is truly not hers to control.

Moon's portrayal as an alienated being is no accident. She is but one of several such characters in The Snow Queen. Equally estranged are Sparks, Moon's cousin and lover; Jerusha, a highly capable but emotionally tortured police inspector; BZ Gundhalinu, Jerusha's prideridden and rigidly structured aide; and Arienrhod, the beautiful but power-crazed Winter Queen. Moreover, these characters reflect a pattern that predominates in Vinge's writing. Most of her major works contain at least one alienated character, usually the protagonist. There are, for example, Betha Torgussen and Wadie Abdhiamal of The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, Mythili Fukinuki and Chaim Dartagnan of "Legacy," Amanda Montoya and Cristoval Hoffmann of "Phoenix in the Ashes," Etaa of Mother and Child, T'uupieh of Eyes of Amber, and Tarawassie and Moon Shadow of "The Crystal Ship."

To find alienation the major theme of Vinge's writing is no surprise, for as critic Blanche Gelfant has indicated, it "is the inextricable theme of modern American fiction." Indeed, it may well be the major theme of modern world fiction, for in addition to notable American writers like Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Saul Bellow, it is also the primary subject of such foreign writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Andre Malraux, Franz Kafka, and Herman Hesse, and as a literary form, it can be traced back directly to Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. While the characteristics of the alienated human have existed independently for centuries, their crystallization into a major phenomenon is primarily the result of the events of the last century: rapid industrialization, global wars, deterioration of the cities, pollution of the environment, dilution of culture, dehumanization of art, refinement of the establishment, mass anaesthetization of humans, and so on. Regardless of the causes, however, the result has been to create societies that are maladjusted and comprised of individuals who accept these maladjustments as normal without realizing that they will eventually find themselves alienated from them without knowing why.

Since the term alienation was first introduced into English with the publication of Erich Fromm's Marx's Concept of Man, it has been so overused that its meaning is often unclear. It may be defined metaphysically, for example, as G. W. F. Hegel does, or psychologically as Ludwig Feuerbach does, or economically as Karl Marx does. Despite this breadth of concept and its subsequent dilution, however, all the definitions have a common ground best set forth perhaps by F. H. Heinemann:

The facts to which the term "alienation" refer, are, objectively different kinds of disassociation, break or rupture between human beings and their objects, whether the latter be other persons, or the natural world, or their own creations in art, science and society; and subjectively, the corresponding states of disequilibrium, disturbance, strangeness and anxiety. . . . There is one point common to all of them, i.e., the belief that a preceding unity and harmony has been transformed into disunity and disharmony.

And, the psychological characteristics of an alienated person can be identified. In describing the "Underground Man," a neurotic extension of the alienated man, Edward Abood lists the following. (1) He is usually at odds with the prevailing norms of the society in which he lives and the forces that perpetuate it. This animosity may extend to Nature, Being, or God. (2) He may either be in active revolt against the society, or he may have turned in upon himself with such ferocity that he has been reduced to despair and a longing for death. (3) His commitments are subjective, and thus he is isolated and estranged. (4) Emotionally, he is lonely, frustrated, anxious, and tense. Sometimes, this is aggravated by a keen, often morbid sensibility. (5) His attitude is typically negative. If he does develop a positive philosophy, it begins with and is conditioned by a denial of the codes of conduct, especially the values, by which those in his culture live. To these we can add the feeling of being manipulated, used, or exploited, a characteristic identified by Marx and several psychologists. Taken together, these qualities comprise the prototype of an individual alienated to the point of being psychotic. It is important to remember, however, that there are differences of degree involved. Not all alienated individuals will display all the qualities that comprise the prototype, nor will they suffer them severely enough to be classified psychotic.

While being alienated certainly implies being neurotic, it does not inevitably spell psychological disaster. Some individuals do struggle and fail in their attempts to cope with their cultures. Others succeed. The latter group first began to appear in American fiction at the end of the 1960s when many authors started producing works in which the protagonists transcend their conditions: loneliness, estrangement from the world and from self. Inevitably, success is impelled by love, for it is characters who love themselves, another, and the world who do transcend. Abood confirms that alienation need not be fatal when he points out that Camus, Sartre, and Malraux all use the condition as a foundation for constructing new and positive value systems that permit their characters to reach some reconciliation with their cultures. The belief that man can transcend his alienation is held by several philosophers and psychologists, who have been termed "utopian existentialists." While accepting that estrangement is a condition of present-day society, they believe that it can be overcome by future sociological and psychological developments.

Among this group, psychologist Erich Fromm, in particular, believes that transcendence is possible. He sees alienation as evolutionary. "Human nature drives toward unity with the 'all,' with nature; but unity on the highest level requires a temporary separation, and consequent loneliness. One goes out in order to return enriched. Separation, though painful, is a progressive step." To accomplish the transcendence, man must establish a sense of identity based upon his experience of self as the subject and agent of his own powers. This will occur when he grasps reality both inside and outside himself. Transcendence is characterized by a productive orientation in which the ability to love and create is predominant.

Though there is no evidence that Vinge has consciously based her characters in Fromm's psychology, the fact is that they closely parallel his thinking. They exhibit the qualities of alienated individuals. Then, by virtue of their experiences, they form new value systems and manage to transcend their estrangement. They do this by learning to love, and they learn to love by learning to communicate. In maturing, some of them even develop the potential to change their cultures. A close examination of Vinge's stories will demonstrate this pattern.

Mythili Fukinuki and Chaim Dartagnan of "Legacy" both exhibit characteristics of alienation. They are at odds with the norms of their culture, they are lonely, tense, and frustrated. Chaim is a "media man," which forces him to survive by flattering the wealthy and powerful. It is a position of high esteem in the fragile Heaven Belt culture. Yet, his self-loathing produces such disgust in him that it is "transmuted into physical self-punishment" and his stomach "pays the price of too many false smiles." Still, he persists until the attempted murder of Mythili, whom he has come to care for, forces him to acknowledge his integrity and suffer the consequences of the action he must take to preserve it.

Mythili is equally at odds with her culture. She is a female spaceship pilot in a society that will not honorably permit its women any role other than childbearer. Moreover, she has voluntarily undergone sterility. She is resented both for her burning desire to succeed as a pilot and for choosing to eliminate her breeding capability when the Heaven Belt culture needs all the healthy children it can get to maintain its faltering technology. Steven Spruill writes: "She burns with inner integrity, a dedication to her self at the other extreme of Dartagnan's utter, if unintended, selfabnegation. By trying so hard to exist on her own terms, to resist the malicious pressures of maledom and the passive restricted example of her society's women, she courts paranoia and madness." Mythili's breech of Heaven Belt values is an active revolt against them. Dartagnan, on the other hand, has turned in on himself with such ferocity that he has been reduced nearly to despair. The commitments of both characters are subjective and their attitudes negative.

Both are also frustrated and lonely. This is most evident in the scene where they are just completing the exploration of a planetoid in the Main Belt. It had promised salvagable goods, but all they found were masses of old printouts and plastic packing crates and a pair of mummified bodies. Disappointed, Chaim returns to their ship and once inside begins to retch, a reaction to his ulcer. Concerned, Mythili follows and in the exchange that follows, he compares himself to "those crazy bastards down in the rock, drowning in garbage, dying by centimeters—just like this goddamned system!"

She suggests that they are not at all like that reclusive couple they found. He counters that they are worse because they had a chance to be something more, hinting of course that they could be lovers. She rejects the idea angrily. She still cannot forgive him for suggesting to Demarch Siamang, a man who tried to kill her because she was unwilling to help him cover up a murder he committed, that he abandon her on the surface of a hostile planet even though she knows that Chaim's suggestion was the only way to save her life. Defeated and frustrated, he replies, "Get the hell out of here, then. Let me be alone by myself." Other evidence of Dartagnan's loneliness is found earlier in the story. His relationship with Mythili seems very promising, and it suddenly occurs to him that the reason he has always hated prospecting was because of its loneliness. A moment later a book of poems falls open in his hands to a page where Mythili has written: "It will be lonely to be dead; but it cannot be much more lonely than it is to be alive!" Next to her plain, backslanted writing, he pens, "Yes, yes, yes."

Moon Shadow and Tarawassie of "The Crystal Ship" suffer the same characteristics of alienation that Dartagnan and Mythili do. They are at odds with the norms of their society, lonely, frustrated, and tense. Moon Shadow, a kangaroolike creature, is initially divorced from his own kind, called the Real People, because he is the last offspring produced by the mating of one of his own kind and one of the humans who came to colonize his planet. He has been ostracized from his kith because he insists upon trying to teach his people that change offered through the superior technology of the humans is preferable to their current stagnation. But they want no part of it. They remember too vividly how they were decimated and exploited by the humans. Moon Shadow, on the other hand, cannot help trying to teach them, for he is a repository for the memories of all his ancestors, and a special organ inside his pouch permits him to draw an outside mind into his own and down into his racial consciousness. Nonetheless, his compulsion to teach the ways of the humans is an active breach of Real People values. He has been hounded into a solitary, half-fugitive existence, spied on and abused, and denied the rituals of the clan.

Tarawassie, a young girl who lives in a starship orbiting high above the planet, is equally alienated. Like most of the other remaining humans, she is completely removed from reality, living initially only for the highs induced by chitta, a native drug that when introduced to the colonists five hundred years earlier caused the society to collapse. Happy and unaware at first, the deaths of a friend and then her mother stir her curiosity to wakefulness. Both committed suicide in the mysterious Star Well of the ship. When no one can satisfactorily explain what the Star Well is and why she has begun to have nightmares, she seeks an answer in the ruined city below because that is where Andar, her dead friend, had found it.

When she becomes lost in the city and cut off from any chitta, her long-suppressed emotions begin to take over, and she is overwhelmed by loneliness. As she continues to withdraw from the drug, she encounters Fromm's reality both inside and outside herself:

She remembered the sight of her own starved body, the reflection of a terrible truth. Because it was true, she was certain of it now. The self and the reality that she had always known had been a dream, a dream. But not a fantasy. She remembered her mother's death, the Star Well. Were this ruined world and her own wretchedness what her mother had seen without chitta? And was this what Andar had seen?

Moon Shadow tries to help her find an answer, and in the process she learns to read. This only increases her divorce from her own kind. When at last she is fully aware of how the colony fell and the insufferable dead end that now presents itself as her future, she thinks: "But even knowing that they [she and Moon Shadow] were valued by one another, she knew that they would both always feel isolated, alienated, lost, because they had no purpose here, no reason for existing in an alien world." Passive at first, Tarawassie actively revolts against her system's values and eventually steps into the Star Well to escape her living death. The Star Well, she believes, is a transporter that can create duplicate bodies at its terminus on Earth, and when Tarawassie steps into it she performs the ultimate rejection of her society's values.

Perhaps the purest and most direct example of a character at odds with the norms of her society, lonely, tense, and frustrated occurs in Amanda Montoya of "Phoenix in the Ashes." Like Moon Shadow she too has been ostracized. She chose love over a marriage arranged by her father, but when the sailor she promised to wait for fails to return, she is forced from her father's home and her dowry is distributed between her two sisters. Now she lives in an adobe cottage on her father's land but far from the main house, and gleans his fields for food. Though he refuses to acknowledge her existence, he has not so completely forgotten her that he would force her to become a beggar or a whore, the only occupations left to a woman of San Pedro who has lost her family sponsorship. In this rigid, male-dominated society, women are regarded as valuable property. From birth they are impressed with the need for obedience and chastity; their role is to serve their husbands and fathers blindly. They weave and cook but do not read.

Amanda's rebellion costs her dearly. Even though other pockets of civilization remain in this postbomb world, San Pedro maintains only limited trading relationships. Because of religious stringency, leaving the society is nearly impossible. So, eight years after her rebellion, Amanda survives at a minimum level. She is bitter, she is lonely, and she finds that "the staid ritual life in San Pedro [is] suffocating her, and her dreams [are] dying."

Amanda's rebellion extends beyond the defiance of her father. She rebels in fact against her God when she gives refuge to Cristoval Hoffmann, a prospector whose helicopter crashed into her father's field. Believing him to have been struck from the sky by God because he was an agent of evil, the villagers invoke their "Angel of the Prophet" to ward off any powers he might have and leave him to die. Amanda explains to him later that the villagers thought that by flying he was performing sorcery....

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Richard Law (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the following excerpt, Law determines all Vinge's short fiction to be, in individual ways, love stories. ]

Joan D. Vinge is another science fiction writer attuned to Existentialism, but her isolated or beleaguered characters. survive what William Barrett calls the modern "encounter with Nothingness" [Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy]. A representative character is Emmylou Stewart in the homiletic story, "View from a Height" Lacking natural immunities essential for life on Earth, Emmylou...

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Carolyn Wendell (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Second Rate Vinge," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 7, No. 11, December, 1984, pp. 29-30.

[Here, Wendell offers a mixed review of Phoenix in the Ashes.]

Joan Vinge provides some of the better science fiction reading available today. Her interest in human emotion and motivation usually results in recognizable people and some of the most intriguing aliens around [I particularly recall those in her first collection, Eyes of Amber, 1979].

The six stories in this volume [Phoenix in the Ashes ]are good reads, but not quite up to the standards set by that earlier volume. For example, the title story is a gripping and compelling tale of two...

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Audrey Eaglen (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Phoenix in the Ashes, in Voice of Youth Advocates, Vol. 7, No. 6, February, 1985, p. 340.

[In the following negative review, Eaglen deems Phoenix in the Ashes a disappointing collection. ]

Vinge fans who expect to find any of the qualities that made her The Snow Queen a Hugo winner will be sorely disappointed in this collection of six previously unpublished short stories [Phoenix in the Ashes.] The first, the title story, is about a plain Jane living in post-nuclear holocaust California and disowned by her feudal, traditionally rigid father in the agricultural society which that part of the world has become. Then a helicopter (which no one in the village has ever seen) crashes in her father's wheat fields. Surely it's a curse! No one will help the pilot, but Amanda does and nurses him back to health. As might be expected he falls in love with her and marries her. When a search party from his home (Brazil) finds him, they ask him to return with them, but he chooses Amanda and the rural life instead. The whole thing is apparently supposed to sound elegiac, but reads like warmed-over Barbara Cartland. Then we have interfering aliens who, in their attempts to help humans left crippled, blind, and deaf by a series of plagues, end up hurting rather than helping.

Four more stories deal with human explorers on Mars, a dragon defeated by human goodness, human/alien halfbreeds, and finally a story written with Vinge's husband Vernon that is nothing short of embarrassing for a writer of Vinge's talent. The six tales are not only unfocussed and over-written, but are mawkish and largely written along the lines of the final passage from the title story: "She [Amanda] nodded, resting her head on his shoulder. 'Yes, my husband; I'd like that [taking a trip sometime] very much.' 'Amanda . . .' he said, surprised, wonderingly. 'My wife. My wife.'" Good grief.

Gerald Jones (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Phoenix in the Ashes, in The New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1985, pp. 20-1.

[In the following favorable review, Jones briefly discusses thematic and stylistic characteristics of Vinge 's short fiction. ]

Joan D. Vinge writes the kind of science fiction that might appear in a family magazine of tomorrow. Her themes are the common currency of modern science fiction—first contact with alien intelligences, post-nuclear-holocaust survival, the mixed blessings of extrasensory powers, the unpredictable outcome when more advanced beings interfere in the affairs of "lesser" species. In plot outline, some of these stories resemble old-fashioned adventure-oriented science fiction but the pace is invariably slower, the texture of the prose richer. Instead of looking for new twists on old themes, Miss Vinge concentrates on people. She is interested, if you will, in sensibility. Caught in situations not of their own making, her characters feel pain, sorrow, ecstasy.

The title story [of Phoenix in the Ashes] not in a post-holocaust community fearful of all technology, exemplifies Miss Vinge's virtues: attractive people, believable conflicts, readable dialogue. It also reveals her shortcomings. She looks too hard for cosmic significance in each situation. Too often, her endings dissolve into uplifting lessons. A hint of what might happen if her characters were freed from the obligation of making points for the author can be found in a story called "Pairen" about a blocked telepath. Perhaps because this story is a sequel to the novel Psion, the motives of the principal characters are never quite clear; events crucial to our understanding have taken place offstage. Instead of more action. We get reactions. Instead of cosmic significance, we get the slow healing of a deep wound—which is all the more remarkable because the hurt is felt in a sensory channel, which we do not share with the protagonist. A fine, disturbing story.

Richard Law (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Eyes of Amber' and Other Stories and Phoenix in the Ashes and 'The Hunt of the Unicorn'," in Suzy McKee Chamas, Octavia Butler, Joan Vinge, by Marleen S. Barr, Ruth Salvaggio, and Richard Law, Starmont House, 1986, pp. 11-21, 52-9.

[In the following excerpt, Law analyzes the principal themes in Vinge's short fiction. ]

Joan D. Vinge's "Eyes of Amber" and Other Stories (1979) includes six short works that appeared originally in different science-fiction publications between 1974 and 1977. One of the works, "Media Man," subsequently was incorporated by Vinge into a novella, "Legacy" (which will be discussed in the next chapter). "Eyes of...

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Gregory M. Shreve (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Lesson in Xenolinguistics: Congruence, Empathy, and Computers in Joan Vinge's Eyes of Amber," in The Fantastic in World Literature and the Arts, edited by Donald E. Morse, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 21-9.

[In the following essay, Shreve examines the themes of language and understanding in Eyes of Amber.]

The great difficulty with using language to communicate is, simply, that one does not always know whether one has communicated effectively. Between the word as it is meant and the word as it is understood lies a universe of difference. The "semantic gap" between speaker and hearer is a very real aspect of human communication; even as speakers of the...

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Joan Vinge (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Restless Urge to Write," in Women of Vision, edited by Denise Dupont, St. Martin's Press, 1988, 109-27.

[In the following essay, Vinge discusses the origins of and the influences on her fiction, the creative process, and the role of women writers in the science fiction genre. ]

There used to be an ad for the Famous Writers School that ran on matchbook covers. It read, Do You Have the Restless Urge to Write? Whenever I think about my career as a writer, it always comes back into my mind, because it seems to sum up creativity better than anything I've seen. I never expected to become a science-fiction writer; probably no one was more surprised about...

(The entire section is 5128 words.)