By Keith Phillips
Warning: spoilers – I recommend reading the story FIRST!
In 1975, Vernor Vinge and former wife, famed SF author Joan D. Vinge, collaborated on a short story entitled “The Peddler’s Apprentice.” This is a high adventure in the classic style of pulp fiction- or at least, it appears to be so at first. In Vernor’s Collected Stories, the introduction to this story poses an interesting riddle: where did Vernor stop writing and Joan take over? (Most collaborative works are not written with an easy answer to this- but this story was.)
It seems Vernor Vinge only had the beginnings of a story and the vaguest of notions where to take it. After a certain story beat, he let then-wife Joan continue the tale; only giving suggestions thereafter. Joan ably picks it up and takes it into territory made infamous by Aldous Huxley- with barely a hint of that destination until the climax! I was stunned by how well the tale turns from “Conan” to “Brave New World.” Bizarrely, I had randomly pulled out Huxley’s book the night before reading the Vinges’ story. Correlations and “coincidences” once again…!
When Joan had completed the story, she then wrote a “frame” for it, including an intro and an “afterword” from the perspective of the protagonist as a older, much different, man. I personally found the “frame” an unnecessary addition that does nothing for the tale, even possibly detracting from it. It adds almost nothing with the intro, and little with its retrospective ending. The reinforcement of the pulp flavor of a classic “swords and sorcery” tale is all you really get here. But the majority of the story has enough of that without the “frame.”
The only other criticism I have with the story is that the best sentence in it (written by Joan) should have been its opening line… but that’s the kind of trouble writers will run into when writing a story piecemeal. Can’t you see how much more immediately a reader would be drawn into a story with a line like “a week after his seventeenth birthday, Wim Buckry had killed a ten thousand year old man”!? Especially versus the actual opening line: “Lord Buckry I of Fyffe lounged on his throne, watching his two youngest sons…”? I’d like to rewrite the story myself… as writing/editing practice, and to see how the “re-staging” of the plot would look.
The best SF tales are like a wizard’s trick- you don’t see the sleight-of-hand until it’s too late. The Vinges manage to pull off this show superbly. As the Peddler, Mr. Jagit, says: “A good magician never tells how. You have to watch and figure how for yourself.”
Keith Phillips – An inveterate jack of all trades, Keith has been hoping to become a published writer for about 3 decades now. Some of his previous careers have included photographer, plumber, groundskeeper, forklift driver and bookstore manager. He has also “worked” for 10 years in the LARP field.