Monday, February 17, 2014

Review Fireship by Joan Vinge

The scene at the end of the film Ghost in the Shell depicts the main character integrating herself with the global network.  Her personality subsumed, the assumption is that the meeting of the ‘minds’ results in a dilution, an absorption, the individual personality effectively vanishing into the uber-mind of the net. Joan D. Vinge, in her 1979 novella Fireship, takes the idea of combining personalities in a different direction: schizophrenia.

Michael Yarrow is an ordinary man living on Earth, that is, until agreeing to have a jack installed in his lower spine and AI attached that interfaces with his mind.  The AI named ETHANAC 500, the decision results in three personalities: Yarrow, the AI, and a combination of the two, a personality which calls itself Ethan Ring.  Dominance of one over the others dynamic, the man wanders through life in a semi-spastic state as each personality pushes and pulls at control.  Able to maintain the appearance of sanity, Ring commits a crime to escape his situation and lands on Mars to elude the law.  Staying at the luxury casino Khorram Kabir, his singularity is all too quickly discovered.  Threatened with being revealed to the police, Ring is blackmailed into helping a mysterious organization dig into the casinos’ inner workings, particularly its secretive owner.  Putting his personalities to the test, what results is a suspense-filled story that threatens to tear Ring into his three different selves. 

An amalgam of modes and styles, Fireship is part cyberpunk, part mystery, part planetary adventure, part crime caper, part love story, and all suspense.  Yarrow betraying Ring at inopportune moments, Vinge challenges herself: how to write a story where the person who wants to create subterfuge keeps giving key information to those he is infiltrating.  Yarrow sabotaging the plans he is supposed to be masterminding, his relationships take on different colors as his mission moves beyond the hotel and into the Martian wilderness seeking an Arab man.

Vinge looking to entertainment, Fireship keeps its focus on story.  Tension maintained, the novella’s biggest draw is the unraveling of the mystery Yarrow uncovers and the identity of those involved.  Delving into three his personalities at times and developing the plot at others, the ‘soft science fiction’ side of the story is light, the personality split used as a tool to overcome the obstacles encountered rather than an issue to be resolved.

In the end, Fireship is a science fiction novella that incorporates sci-fi motifs into an action/suspense plot.  Reminiscent of Larry Niven and Roger Zelazny, the story features Silver Age and cyberpunk elements mixed into a mystery/crime caper.  The style plain yet competent, there are holes in the plot, but the unique Mars setting and Vinge’s play with Yarrow/ETHANAC 500/Ring’s personality set the story slightly above its mainstream elements. 


  1. Jesse, I just read this and reviewed it a month or so ago. Do you have the book pictured or did you read it separately? I found the other novella, Mother and Child, in the edition pictured far superior. It's more social in purpose -- feels like Le Guin with slightly less verve.

    1. Forgive me, I'm slowly getting around to catching up on all of the blog posts I missed while away... I see you were busy buying and reviewing... :)

      I did not read the version you did, only the novella. I just checked out your review, and, as is obvious, we have the exact same opinion. Thus, it becomes important that I find out what the 'other side' holds; Mother and Child does indeed seem more humanist in import than Fireship, which, as you rightfully pointed out, is proto-cyberpunk.

      And cheers for the shout out to Speculiction in your review of Fireship! :)