Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review of Fast Times at Fairmont High by Vernor Vinge

Every reader an individual with specific tastes and preferences, it’s natural that what appeals to one may leave a bad taste in the mouth of another.  Vernor Vinge is one such author for me.  I see how popular he is, and I know he has a firm following, but in the two pieces of fiction I’ve read, A Fire upon the Deep and The Cookie Monster, I’ve been left with serious doubts as to the integrity of his work.  I will not reiterate upon the reasons (you can read those in the reviews), except to say I decided to let the rule of three determine whether there was any value to continue investing in the author.  Though it was the best of the three, after reading Fast Times at Fairmont High (the 2001 novella), I have to say I’m done unless a compelling reason appears in the future. Imaginative usage of technology: yes.  Intelligent use of ideas: partially (there are some interestingly plausible visions of life in middle schools of the future).  Entertaining, evaporatingly so.  Mature in style, no.  Cohesive, more so than The Cookie Monster.  Literary, anything but.  

Fast Times at Fairmont High is the story of Juan Orozco, a middle school student at Fairmont High—a school for gifted and talented teens in San Diego, save one.  That one is Bertie, Juan’s best friend, who lives in Chicago and attends class virtually.  A high-speed, nodal wi-fi net blanketing San Diego, there are few places the boys cannot go together.  But ‘snips and snails, and puppy dog tails’ are far from their minds.  Final exams upcoming, there are two projects they must pass: a research project, and a “naked” project: one without the web.  When Bertie suggests that Juan team up with a girl in their class named Miri, Juan starts to get suspicious.  When Bertie actually interferes with dung pellets (yes, you read correctly), however, things turn strange.

The opening of Fast Times at Fairmont High is promising; an engaging scene is set despite Vinge’s one-dimensional style.  The web omnipresent, middle school, home, and numerous other places (including people) are overlain with a skein of digitized imagery and data, leaving Juan and his pals living in two dimensions: the real and the virtualized.  Keeping up with the class’s top students never more difficult, homework, exams, cheating, data gathering, and collaboration take on whole new meanings in this environment, and Juan, afraid of falling behind, has been resorting to “little blue pills” to better retain info in class.  Neither condemning or supportive, Vinge’s vision of the future classroom, where everything is an eye-blink, virtual click away, is intriguing.

Not wanting to sound like a broken record, I will leave the novella’s shortcomings be. Suffice to say, the issues which exist in the two other works by Vinge I have read, exist to varying degrees in Fast Times at Fairmont High.  Regarding plot, well, everything goes so-so until turds and mice enter the scene.  With technology, the manner in which it affects teenage relationships, and the implications of a visionary classroom environment, why throw dungballs and sentient rodents into the mix?  Instead of resolving the story around the lines of tension initially strung, Vinge abandons the framework in favor of a network of mouse tunnels, undermining what is a rather nice story to that point.  Though the denouement does tie back in to the premise, something is lost prior.

This being my last post on Vinge, I would like to add a caveat to my criticism.  Had I encountered Vinge at an earlier age, I think my response would be more positive.  The same as my perspective has evolved over the years of Kevin J. Anderson’s Star Wars novels, I can’t help but feel Vinge is best appreciated by the crowd who does not look for a writer to engage them, rather pacify them.  The stories featuring simple premises written in wholly transparent style, one can simply relax and let Vinge take them where he will, zero effort required.  Moreover, Vinge writes with a spark of youth.  One can almost see the man grinning as he comes up with a wild idea and slaps it into the story.  And there is something to be said for this joy of writing.  Thus it is perhaps I who am over-prepared for Vinge, rather than Vinge possessing any faults truly worth moaning about. 

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