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Literature / The Witling

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Science was a toy for children—or the mentally crippled.

The Witling is a short standalone Science Fiction Novel by Vernor Vinge, published in 1976.

An expedition to an inhabited planet — only the fifth time in thirteen thousand years that humanity has encountered intelligent life, or even evidence of such — goes wrong when two humans are stranded and captured by the natives, the Azhiri. A race of powerful psychics, the medieval Azhiri regard science writ large as a joke, useless to "normal" people, since psychic powers can solve most of the problems that would otherwise necessitate scientific research.

Unfortunately, the hapless Yoninne Leg-Wot and Ajão Bjault don't have time to indulge in observation — all of the food on Giri is laced with low levels of heavy metals (think lead and mercury), which will slowly poison them the longer they stay — if the medieval Azhiri don't murder them first. Caught in a deadly medieval drama of palace politics and primitive psychics, Yoninne and Ajão have to race against time to retrieve their equipment and escape from Giri.

Because of the short length of this novel, almost all of its plot points are Spoilers. Spoilers ahead will be unmarked.

This Novel contains examples of:

  • Alien Sky: Played With. Giri has two moons, one slightly larger than the other, and both are noted to be "basaltic", much like the Earth's moon and, a character notes, many other moons. Interestingly, the description comes across sounding as if the sky is less alien than might be expected, since the moons are of a familiar appearance, despite there being two of them.
  • Aliens Never Invented the Wheel: Justified with numerous basic innovations, as having Psychic Powers meant such things never needed to be invented. Notably, very few buildings have doors, because the Azhiri just teleport everywhere, including in and out of buildings. They also lack basic plumbing, and actually don't seem to have invented the wheel—because of their reliance on water for transport, they travel long distances using "road boats" via artificial transit lakes. No one seems to carry weapons, either—who needs them, when you can just scramble your enemies' brains at a distance?
  • Badass Boast: When Guildsman Lan offers the Guild's support to County Tsarang in fighting a war, he says simply, "The last country that opposed the Guild no longer exists."
  • Balance of Power: Discussed by Thengets del Prou and Ajão; the balance of power on Giri is tenuously equalized between three demographics. It's probably to be expected, considering that almost Everyone Is a Super. Any two of the major demographics could dominate the third if they united. Prou remarks that if the aristocracies and populace united against the Guild, the Guild would be destroyed, but at the cost of millions of lives. To elaborate:
    • The Guild, whose less-than-600 members are incredibly powerful but drastically outnumbered by the rest of the Azhiri, who number around four hundred million. Prou notes that "a single Guildsman can destroy whole cities", and with some quick mental calculations, Ajão realizes he's not boasting.
      Ajão realized he was telling the literal truth. If a hundred-ton moon rock were exchanged for an equivalent volume of—say—air at Giri's surface, the net potential energy released would be equivalent to a small fission bomb. Perhaps that explained the strange glassy plain Draere had photographed in the southern hemisphere.
    • The aristocracies, who command well-trained armies and defensive strategic locations.
    • The rest of the population, who pose a threat through sheer numbers.
  • The Cavalry: Dramatically subverted near the beginning of the book. Yoninne and Ajão are hiding in the wilderness of an unfamiliar planet, and the natives are closing in. They've called for backup, and they're pretty confident that the ferry's landing jets will scare off the natives—but then the ferry crashes. And the natives aren't the least bit fazed by the explosion. And they almost definitely made the ship crash with their newly-revealed Psychic Powers.
  • Darkest Hour: Everyone but Pelio comes very close to death just before the climax of the book: The three witlings are in the descending ablation skiff (basically a reentry vehicle with a parachute) with Bre'en, a Defiant Captive who would kill them all given the chance, and Samadhom, the Team Pet whose Psychic Powers are the only thing protecting them. And then Samadhom—who, by the way, has been Pelio's treasured companion and only friend for his entire life—passes out from blood loss due to an earlier injury. And then Bre'en kengs Yoninne, scrambling her brain. Oh, and Ajão is already slowly dying of heavy metal poisoning.
  • Fantastic Diet Requirement: Inverted. The humans who are trapped on an alien planet know that they are being slowly poisoned by the high concentration of heavy metals in all of the food, which the aliens are unaffected by.
  • Goo-Goo-Godlike: Mentioned by Thengets del Prou when discussing the Guild. Azhiri Psychic Powers are constant throughout a person's lifespan, so particularly Talented Azhiri make terrifyingly powerful children. The Guild rounds up dangerously Talented children to teach them how to not be Enfant Terribles, but occasionally they miss one.
    Prou: I don't remember my family. I was less than a year old when the Guild took me. It was a lucky thing, too: occasionally the Guild will miss a child, which can be horrible for the village he's born into. There are cases of super-Talented kids just taking over isolated villages, killing anyone who opposes their whims. Children like that should be raised by equally Talented adults—Guildsmen—who can plant consciences in them.
  • Inertia Is a Cruel Mistress: This trope is the reason the psychic Azhiri use Portal Pools when they teleport instead of just doing it whenever and wherever they like. As Bjault and Leg-Wot explain it:
    Ajão Bjault: At first glance teleportation seems like a simple — if supernormal — trick: you disappear at one point and appear at another, without ever suffering the inconvenience of having been in between. But closer inspection shows that nature imposes certain restrictions on even the supernormal. If you are moving relative to your destination, then there is naturally going to be a collision when you arrive — and the faster you're going, the harder the crash. This world ... rotates once every twenty-five hours, so that points along the equator are moving eastward at better than five hundred meters per second, while points north and south rotate at correspondingly slower speeds. Teleporting across the planet's surface is like—
    Yoninne Leg-Wot: —Like playing hopscotch on a merry-go-round.
  • Internal Reveal: During a lull in the action, Yoninne gets drunk and admits she manipulated Pelio into helping the humans. The reader has known about this for a while, but it comes as quite a shocking betrayal to Pelio.
  • In Vino Veritas: Yoninne goes along with Prou's plan to manipulate Pelio into helping the humans by "accidentally" publicly revealing her relationship with Pelio, even though she argues that they should just ask him upfront. Later, during a lull in the action, she gets drunk and admits to the manipulation. Pelio does not take it well.
  • Magical Society: The Guild is an organization of "less than six hundred—and a quarter of those are children" extremely powerful Azhiri who are involuntarily inducted as children based on the strength of their Talent. Mostly, it's for the protection of their species; Prou mentions that powerful children missed by the Guild have, in the past, taken over isolated villages and slaughtered anyone who didn't obey them, similarly to the plot of It's a Good Life.
  • Multistage Teleport: Painstakingly justified; the psychic Azhiri can only safely teleport over relatively short distances on the planet's surface, because otherwise the difference in rotational velocity between their starting location and their destination would result in a very nasty splat (or the traveler could simply be shot up into low orbit). They mitigate this by teleporting between pools of water, which cushions the impact, but they are still limited in distance, so long trips are done in a series of jumps between checkpoints. Before visiting the planet, some of the human characters notice clearly-artificial chains of pools visible on the planet's surface via satellite imagery, but fail to guess their purpose. Interestingly, the Azhiri actually exploit this phenomenon for combat by using it to fire rocks, water, and even high-pressure blasts of air at their enemies.
  • No Entrance: Axhiri buildings usually have no entrances since they can easily teleport in and out.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The novel takes less than two pages to establish that Parapfu Moragha views Thengets del Prou as a smug, self-satisfied twit. Moragha commissions him to "seng"—to use clairvoyance to scout—an area in the first scene in the book, and Prou claims not to have found anything, but says it without smirking or being snarky; based on this, Moragha correctly guesses that Prou is lying.
  • Precision F-Strike: Yoninne drops a Precision G-D Strike early on, when she and Ajão finally realize why they never had a chance against the Azhiri: "Teleports. They're goddamned teleports."
  • Psychic Powers: Giri's native race, the Azhiri, have most of the gamut of Psychic Powers. They can "seng" (see across distance, as well as some analytical abilities such as detecting the density of matter; this ability also seems to be able to detect the strength of another person's Psychic Powers), "keng" (kill from a distance), and "reng" (teleport either themselves, other people, or objects). The absolute limit of these powers is not clearly defined, but one character mentions that Guildsmen can reng objects to and from the moons, so clearly distance alone is not a big limiting factor.
  • Swap Teleportation: Teleportation (of both themselves and other objects and people) is one of the main Psychic Powers of the Azhiri, referred to as "renging". They actually do it by exchanging the material to be teleported with an equal volume of matter from the destination. The distance and direction in which things can be renged is apparently unlimited, but in practice, it's limited by the relative velocity of the departure and destination locations due to the rotation of the planet. Additionally, an Azhiri can only reng themselves to locations that they have either been to or seen. Most Azhiri can't seng over very long distances, but the extremely Talented Guildsmen can seng almost anything and anywhere, which means they can effectively teleport themselves wherever they want. The ability to kill at a distance, "kenging", works on the same principle: The attacker scrambles an enemy's guts or brains by swapping two equivalent volumes of organs or brain matter within the body, killing instantly but leaving no outward injuries.
  • Team Pet: Samadhom, Prince Pelio's pet watchbear, fills this role once they set off on their journey to the remote island. He becomes even more significant when the three witlings are stuck with only one Talented Azhiri to help them—and he's a Defiant Captive who will kill them all at the first opportunity, since they're helpless against his Psychic Powers. Enter Samadhom, who uses his own Psychic Powers to protect the witlings.
  • Teleporter's Visualization Clause: Most Azhiri have the ability to teleport to places they've seen before. Some also have the ability to remotely see distant places, allowing them to see and then teleport to places they haven't physically visited.
  • Un-Sorcerer: Azhiri who are born without Psychic Powers are uncommon, and are considered mentally deficient "witlings". One of the main characters, Pelio, happens to be both a witling and the firstborn son of a king, which makes him a highly unusual combination of being both a Muggle and having a great deal of political power. Even so, he desperately wants to be like everyone else—whether that means having Psychic Powers like the rest of the Azhiri, or going to a place where everyone is a Muggle.