Book review: Heaven Chronicles, by Joan D Vinge

12 09 2016

Joan D Vinge is an American SF author who has won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen; she has also written the novelisations for several movies, including Mad Max: Beyond ThunderdomeLost in Space and Cowboys and Aliens.


Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works Legacy (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel The Outcasts of Heaven Belt. To complicate matters slightly, Legacy is itself a combination of two short novellas Media Man and Fool’s Gold. Two of the three component stories (Media Man and Outcasts) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; Fool’s Gold was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. Media Man, Legacy, and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt have also all been published separately as paperbacks. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release. The edition of Heaven Chronicles I read dates from 1991.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising Legacy explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. Outcasts deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, moreso in the space-operatic Outcasts than in Legacy. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of ‘metric time’—i.e. seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds—rather than the ‘imperial time’ (hours / days / years etc.) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive—the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times—but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found Legacy to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. Outcasts suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its ‘bitsy-ness’ might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

(This is the tenth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)




One response

25 01 2017
Heaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge | SF Mistressworks

[…] This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie. […]

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