Tue
Oct 11 2011 12:07pm

Working With Vernor Vinge: Thirty Years On

About a month ago I realized that today’s publication of The Children of the Sky will not only mark the eighth book of Vernor Vinge’s that I’ve edited, it will also mark thirty years that I’ve been working with this talented writer. If we’re going to be picky, I have actually been working with him for slightly longer, but the first book of his that I worked on was a Binary Star double-novel book that included his short novel “True Names,” which was published in February of 1981.

We lived in a different world in 1981. I hadn’t yet started using a computer for word processing, no less for communicating on the internet. And the science fiction publishing world was a very different place as well. I — as is true of many colleagues both at Tor Books and elsewhere, could go on and on about how publishing has changed over the past thirty years or so. But I will refrain. In this blog post I will limit myself to talking about what the title suggests.

When I first read Vernor Vinge’s work, it was in the pages of Galaxy and Analog magazines. I particularly remember reading Grimm’s World, first the novella, then the novel. I was struck by the . . . I believe I would have said “nifty” world he had created. Like many SF readers, the notion of a world that had an SF magazine publishing company on a boat was nothing less than cool. It’s a tribute to his ability to evoke a sense of wonder in his readers.

But I didn’t read a lot of his fiction after Grimm’s World. I got into publishing, and my recreational reading time was severely reduced by the demands of my reading for work. But in 1979, when my eyes fell upon the manuscript for “True Names,” I couldn’t resist looking at it right away . . . and once I started it, I was hooked. It was, quite simply, an amazing, awesome piece of work, all the more impressive for its relatively short length.

Vinge has since then written six novels, and I don’t think he’ll be angry if I admit that since the fourth of those six novels, A Deepness in the Sky, which was the longest book he’d written at that time, he’s been trying to write shorter novels with limited success. I’m sure readers don’t mind the long books. And neither do I. They have been rich, filled with science fiction invention, big-screen scope, marvelous concepts, and generally terrific storylines. I couldn’t have asked for more.

But I know that he wishes he could recapture the magic of the short — or relatively short — novel. I understand this impulse. Life is short. Hey, I wouldn’t mind editing a book that was a mere ninety- or a hundred-thousand words. I’ve done it many times . . . just not often novels by him — not since Marooned in Realtime. But the books he’s written have, over the past twenty-five years, demanded greater length. They’ve all had stories that would not have been nearly as good if they’d been shorter. So I really don’t mind the long length . . . the dark circles under my eyes, the occasional glimpses of sunrise after hours of avidly reading the latest draft of the new novel.

The other reason I don’t mind is  . . . well, I feel as if I’m really lucky to be working on his books. In a number of ways he is a most unusual writer. One might think that some of those ways are not good, and you might have an argument about the fact that finishing a novel about once every seven years isn’t the optimal way to make one’s career flourish. And you’d mostly be right. I’ve had many conversations with my boss, Tom Doherty, over the past twenty years, about just this subject. But while Tom and I agree that it would be really great if Vernor could write faster, we also agree that given a choice between getting his next book faster and getting it etter_, we’d both take better. And it took seven years for Vernor to make the novels  A Fire upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, and Rainbows End as terrific as they are. So who are we to argue with that. Each one of them won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Heck, nobody’s ever done that before. Nobody — not Heinlein, nor anyone else before Vernor Vinge. Not even Connie Willis, who may have won more fiction Hugos than anyone else, period!

So it’s hard to get mad at him for taking the time necessary to get ’em right. And though the process is long, it’s a lot of fun. He’s not one of those writers who will work on something in utter secrecy until the moment it’s done and then unveil it to the world (or his editor.) He shows me drafts, partial and complete, and then he asks me for feedback on each draft as he goes. This is a double-edged sword, because I’m not the only person who sees these drafts. He has friends to whom he shows his drafts, and sometimes my blood runs cold, fearing that someone may give him really, really bad advice upon which he will then act. And that, my imagination tells me, might send his story off in a less-than-optimal direction.

But that has never really happened, as far as I know. And he has been a wonderful re-writer, taking suggestions that I make and not just doing what I might ask, but using my suggestions as jumping off points for leaps of narrative invention that I could not have asked him to devise. Seeing what he will come up with is almost always an exciting, suspenseful experience. Moreover, he has never yet disappointed me. Each novel has become something new and unique. Not necessarily what I expected . . . but always fresh, entertaining, and full of the sense of wonder that first caught my eye in 1969.

As a lifelong science fiction reader, that is something that I treasure.        

Now, with The Children of the Sky, he has once again surprised me. First of all, because it has only been five years, not seven, since his previous novel, Rainbows End. That’s great news for me as a reader, and for Tor — I pointed this out to Tom Doherty and he had to agree that yes, five years between books is better than seven. And with this book, he’s also done something for which readers have clamored lo, these nineteen years: the direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. And best of all, he is still writing uniquely original science fiction. While this is the direct sequel to that book, it is not what one would call predictable. Anyone expecting him suddenly to start repeating himself will be disappointed. But I don’t think any of the many fans of his previous books will be disappointed. They will know that he just doesn’t do that. This novel is itself, not like any other. Uniquely Vernor Vingean. Which is something special. I can’t wait to read it again!

And that is why I love working with this guy.


James Frenkel is a Senior Editor at Tor Books. He has been working in the field since 1971 and is the former publisher of Bluejay Books.

5 comments
Fredrik Coulter
1. fcoulter
I have to say that it's a good morning when I look at my Kindle and find a new Vinge novel showed up.

Thanks to all.
William S. Higgins
2. higgins
I decided, sometime in the Seventies, that I was exactly the sort of reader for whom Vernor Vinge was writing. And I haven't had any reason to change my mind.
Cathy Mullican
3. nolly
So...when might Children of the Sky be available through Google eBooks so I can buy it through my favorite indie, Mysterious Galaxy?
Mardi-Ellen Hill
4. Mardi-Ellen Hill
Can't wait to read this book. I am fan through and through!
Mardi-Ellen Hill
5. MaxZ
I used to be a fan of Verner Vinge and thought warmly of Tor, but you have to ask yourself hard questions. Did this artist not notice the caliber of man he was working with? This publishing house puts out little encapsulated worlds, yet ignores warnings that one of their demi-urges is corrupt; can I trust those worlds?

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