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The Witling by Vernor Vinge
Classic early Vinge hard sci-fi, with some great technological twists.
Pages: 220 (Paperback)
Publisher: Tor (originally published 1976)
ISBN: 0-765-30886-X ( 978-0-765-30886-3 )
Vinge is one of the gurus of hard, speculative science fiction. Every McGuffin he conjures can be backed up with some creatively twisted variant of hard physics. The Witling is no exception. Originally published in 1976, this is worthy of Clarke's fine journeys into exotic alien cultures, and holds up well even today. It has a quaint and innocent quality lacking in today's post-cyberpunk kind of edgy and grunge fiction.
Yoninne Leg-Wot and Ajao Bjault (a pilot and archaeologist respectively) are surveying the inhabited planet Giri, a planet further out in the system from "Novamerika", a colonized planet. It's unclear how Giri has been ignored to this degree so far, perhaps some sort of Star Trekian doctrine prohibiting contact with non-spacefaring races. The survey is therefore a clandestine one, conducted quietly at a distance, with the two non-natives eavesdropping on language, culture, economy and industry. After concluding their summary investigation, they pack up and call for extraction, lamenting the sparseness of their research. And that's where it all starts to go haywire.
They end up captives of the indigenous race (the Azhiri), which in true StarWarsTrek space-operetic form, are bipedal humanoids, with the very peculiar psychic ability (Talent) to teleport information/matter at will. By chance, they become the private guests of the crown prince of the most powerful realm of the planet. A damaged heir, a "Witling", who lacks the psychic powers of their race. The offworlders realize immediately the potential of the natives' quantum magic to connect together far-flung colonized planets separated by enormous distances bridged only by relativity-bound ramscoop starships. But Yoninne and Ajao must survive and engineer their way off the planet somehow, before the local sustenance slowly poisons their foreign metabolisms. On their side is The Guild, a non-partisan union of the most powerful psychics who also realize the potential in otherworldly trade and are willing to move mountains or moons to achieve a scientific revolution.
They concoct an elaborate scheme to travel with the (now exiled) crown prince to a remote island in the midst of a terrifying sea, where the original expedition had set up an unmanned telecommunications relay station and send out their distant cry for assistance. Of course there is a cripplingly tight schedule, so the plan calls for pushing the limits of travel via the psychic Reng technique through hostile territory, furtively trying to conceal the significance of their mission lest the enemy state seize the offworlders for their own benefit.
Vinge creates an alien planet and culture that is not very different from a rural existence of early Earth civilization, then selectively turns bits of it 180 degrees on its head by injecting fabulously potent mind powers. Some might criticize the alien culture as being too boring or unimaginative, because they're just like us, but with brain magic. But, I would defend that this similarity allows us to more clearly savor the profound differences caused solely by the singular differences. If they were totally alien, we wouldn't have any affinity and sympathy, rather like trying to commune with a squid at the aquarium.
As other will observe, the weakness in the story is the characters. They're all rather two-dimensional, and there isn't much opportunity for growth, nor is there much genuine emotional interaction. The Witling isn't the best Vinge I've ever read. But to have a best, you have to have a body of not-best work to contrast it with. Vinge's not-best is better than many authors' best.
The Witling (2006 paperback)