Psion (Cat book 1 of 3) by Joan D. Vinge (book review).

Actually, the reason I bought ‘Psion’ by Joan D. Vinge is because of ‘Catspaw’, which turned out to be the second book, which has a Michael Whelen cover. A little research revealed this was the first book and fairly easy to get. The second is a little harder. The third, ‘Dreamfall’, took a little longer to pop up. Anyway, they can be read apart, so that might not be a problem.

If you’re unfamiliar with Joan D. Vinge, she wrote ‘The Snow Queen’, the book that the ‘Frozen’ films were based on, and was really prolific in her day, often doing film novelizations where you really have to write well and quickly.

With ‘Psion’, we are in the future with a human federation spread across the galaxy where element 170, telhassium, can power stellar drives, although there aren’t many sources for it and mining is difficult.

Cat is more than a name; he’s a youngster and supposedly part-Hydran, with cat-like green eyes. Alone since the age of 4 and a vagabond in the Old City, he’s eventually caught in his late teens and found to have latent psychic talent, but some trauma has curtailed these abilities. However, they decide it’s worth the trouble to reprocess his mind so he can function again.

This book is from the from the first-person cat’s perspective, which brings its own problems. A few chapters in, we learn he’s illiterate, but this doesn’t explain how good his vocabulary is. It’s always a balancing act to get this right. Writing about someone with a limited vocabulary is difficult for the reader to get along with and must certainly develop over time. We have the example of ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keys to demonstrate that, and no one, as far as I’m aware, has gone that route again. If it weren’t for the fact that Cat’s psychic ability hadn’t really been used, one could surmise he could have gotten some education from reading other people’s minds. However, the fact that Cat can’t read isn’t forgotten and has been used a few times.

Rather oddly, for the second part of this novel, Cat leaves the institute, lacks money, is picked up as a vagrant again, and is shipped off to the planet Cinder to mine telhassium. Without going too far, I did wonder if this was to do with the notes on the back cover or Cat being delusional, but it’s none of that. What we have essentially is a power play by one person, and the other person is forced to go along or risk death.

From there, it’s all spoiler. For its age, the story holds up. One of the problems with first-person stories is that you only get the picture from the main character, even when they are in the thick of things. If you thought in my own short stories I could get a little dialogue intense, Vingt has me beat, carrying several chapters in that manner, although we should be grateful that it wasn’t all telepathic, shown only when brackets are used.

Likewise, I was curious to see how Vingt wrote about people. Given that green eyes could identify Psions, one would hope that not all green-eyed individuals were Psions. In many respects, she only uses her talents when needed, rather than my take on working all the time, but that is typical of her time period. I mean, this is over 30 years ago.

Vingt is a good storyteller and character writer, although Cat himself doesn’t appear as young as he should, although that could be my own age now or his being a vagrant for so long. We are left no wiser as to what caused the memory trauma he suffered, but maybe the other two books will resolve this. Don’t be sent to the mines.

GF Willmetts

April 2024

(pub: Futura Publications, 1983. 346 page paperback. Price: varies. ISBN: 0-7088-8099-1)


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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