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The Witling

by Vernor Vinge
Pan Books
$14.95

Pelio is Prince Imperial of the planet Giri, and next in line for the throne. Some people, especially his father, find this eventuality disturbing. For on a planet where most people can teleport at will and transport objects by a mere thought, Prince Pelio is a witling; he has no psychic powers. On a world where two rooms of a house could be miles apart and Witlings are treated as slaves, Pelio's position is a precarious one, with knowledge of his condition a well-kept secret.

When Pelio learns that two witlings have been captured and that they possess knowledge of strange technology such as flying ships, Pelio hopes they may be able to help him achieve his aim of gaining the respect of his father and securing his position. Vinge creates a very entertaining and intelligent tale, outlining the world of Giri in detail. The descriptions of the cultural and practical aspects of a society formed around the use of teleportation are intriguing. Consider; a society that is capable of speed-of-light travel, but has no knowledge of the wheel. Vinge fits such points into the narrative without committing that most common sin of science fiction; long-winded technical exposition.

Vinge's control of character and plot development is consummate. Neither overpowers the other, instead they complement each other. As the plot progresses, we learn more about each of the characters. We discover that the two witlings are an anthropological team sent to observe the inhabitants of Giri. They had considered the inhabitants to be a primitive race, and are therefore shocked to discover the truth. They are eager to leave Giri, but have to play along with the Prince's plans as well as those of the Guild, (an organisation for the training and control of those with the strongest PSI powers) which is the most powerful group on the planet.

The female witling is a quite interesting character. Disliked by her comrades, she finds herself receiving the attention of Prince Pelio. The emotional problems this creates for her are well handled and her actions at the end of the novel make for a tragic but rewarding conclusion.

This book may not be a ground-breaking piece of literature, but it has all the qualities of a well-crafted and thought-provoking example of genre writing. It is proof that science fiction does not have to be about the existential problems of life in a post-modern society to be an entertaining read.