Psion by Joan D Vinge
*Contains mild spoilers*
Imagine a hard-luck guy from your high-school. He’s the sort of fellow where his inherent bad luck is compounded by the bad decisions he bull-headedly makes and defends, even as his actions cause him more problems. Now imagine running into him at Wal*Mart when you’re home visiting family over the holidays. The awkward small talk gets the best of you, and before you can stop yourself, you utter those dreaded words: so, what have you been up to?
And, with a painful mix of self-consciousness and a desire to look tough, he answers your question. Starting with the last time you saw him a decade ago.
Psion is the first book I’ve had to put down since starting ForFemFan, because Cat, our cat-like telepathic protagonist, is that hard-luck guy. This isn’t a book about Cat. This is a book where Cat tells you his story, and as he is a youngish, emotionally stunted, rough-around-the-edges social outcast, his self-consciousness and refusal to look weak bleeds into his description of his life with almost every sentence. Nothing is ever his fault, and he doesn’t really care what happens, anyway. This outlook is authentic—cod knows I’ve known young men like Cat—but yeesh it’s tough to read.
I kept pushing, though. Interesting things did happen, I was eagerly awaiting Cat's personal growth, and in the mean time his bad-boy comebacks became a source of mirth.
“What are you?” The doctor asked.
“Tired and hungry and sick of taking your crap."
“They can go to hell; I’d be glad to give them a reference,” Cat quips at another point, and I was torn between laughing at how such a perfect comeback can sound so lame and wondering where he picked up that expression. He’s an illiterate beggar/thief and loner who’s lived on the streets, on his own, since he was three years old. Somehow corporate jokes seem like a stretch.
This first-person narrative approach has another, bigger, problem, though: summation. The trap is that it feels natural for a self-aware character to tell their own story in summary. For example, if I wanted to tell you the story of how I met my husband, it’d be weird to say:
On the first day of ninth-grade, I walked into homeroom, nervous but determined not to show it. I’d heard that if you could convince public-school kids that instead of transferring, you had been expelled from Christian school, they were less likely to pick on you. The room was full of chattering teenagers—my classmates, I realized with a gulp. One guy, his curly dark hair wild and his shirt advertising something called “The Casualties” leaned conspiratorially towards his neighbor.
“It was a really good concert,” he said with a laugh that brightened his green eyes. “Except I left with only one shoe.”
Quietly I took the seat behind him, planning my introduction.
Much, much more natural would be a simple summary:
We met first day of ninth-grade in homeroom. I had just transferred from Christian school, and he was talking about a punk concert he’d attended. He seemed neat, so I sat near him.
Psion mostly is the latter. Events big and small are condensed into a sentence or two. Weeks and months pass, and friendships are forged, in summary. And then Cat wistfully looks back on a good time that technically happened in the book, but we never actually saw. Like, cool, but am I supposed to have an emotional reaction to this? Knowing that he made good friends doesn't make me automatically feel for him when he loses them.
The second thing is harder to describe. Things just felt on-the-nose, I guess? For example, Cat is taken in by a government team that’s training psions. After months of training, he's finally told that the goal of this training is to get psions into a psion-led mob that has grown far too powerful, and help to take it down from the inside. Quicksilver is the name of the leader of this mob, and the primary target.
Within days of learning this, a corporate-devil sort of man appears and offers Cat and a psion friend jobs. He doesn’t give specifics, but mentions that they’ll be fabulously wealthy. Cat jokes—like, 100% committed to it being a joke—about the man being a criminal. Of course, the man is Quicksilver himself.
More than that, Quicksilver spied on Cat during training to determine that Cat is the sort of person he wants to hire. So Quicksilver psionically monitored the team of psions enough to gauge their skill, but not enough to realize their end goal? Or did he, and he's courting Cat to get even? And why isn't Cat et al suspicious of Quicksilver's offer? It is awfully convenient, and for Cat to survive on the streets for as long as he has, he'd need to be able to see through such obvious problems.
The third thing is the telepathy, and this was what finally made me put the book down. Cat meets a race of telepaths, and their minds merge or some shit. Pages are dedicated to the empty fluff of “We were one and none ... and I was nothing but everything (and yet still within me) and they saw my everything but it didn’t matter because we were everything.”
I skimmed, then I skipped, then I flipped ahead a few pages and saw prose littered with ellipses. I mean, look at this shit:
It was more than I could take.
Oddly enough, I accidentally started reading the second book in the series—Catspaw—first. I was blown away by the first chapter, and delighted with Joan Vinge’s voice and the effortless way she portrayed Cat’s telepathic connection to his world. It was third-person, which helped, but the first chapter of Psion was also third-person.
I'll still give Catspaw a try, even though book #1 in the series absolutely failed to captivate me. I think the majority of my problems with Psion stem from Cat's attitude, perception, and transition to life as a telepath. So if he's more well-adjusted in Catspaw, I could find myself rooting for him yet.
Cover art by Gary Smith