Young People Read Old SFF

Eyes of Amber

Joan D. Vinge

Young People Read Old SFF

6 Jun, 2022

This month’s Young People Read Old Hugo Finalists focuses on Joan D. Vinge’s 1977 Hugo-winning Eyes of Amber. Initially giving the impression of high fantasy1, the story is in fact primarily set on a pre-Voyager Titan, imaged as a life bearing world whose intelligent inhabitants while inhuman in form struggle with issues familiar to humans. Interaction is limited to messages relayed via robot probe, but this is sufficient to raise intriguing moral issues for the humans monitoring the probe. 

Readers of a certain vintage may have first encountered the story in 1979’s Eyes of Amber and Other Stories. Readers of a slightly older vintage — readers like me, for example — might have encountered it in Analog’s remarkable Women’s Issue. Younger readers might never have encountered the story at all because in the grand tradition of Hugo finalists by women Eyes of Amber appears to have been out of print in English since 1987. The Young Readers therefore are likely to be engaging Vinge’s Novelette with fresh eyes: will they like it as much as readers did 45 years ago? 

1: The covers of both the Analog in which it first appeared and the later collection give the game away that Eyes of Amber is science fiction. 

I have read it and have many thoughts on it, but one thing that surprised me was the presence of the term New Wave to refer to music. Yes, it was around but in 1976 (when I am guessing this was probably written) it was not a super common term I do not believe. According to N‑Grams it was still less common than Punk and a lot less common than Disco:

The first reference to this in Billboard magazine I could find is in an article in January 77 on the firing of the Sex Pistols from EMI and noting Miles Copeland’s New Orders promotional outfit to find gigs for punk groups:

And whilst used in Punk zines and by some critics before this, the famous New Wave Compilation album didn’t come out until later in 77 (I believe it was during the Summer as that was when it charted in the UK):

All a long way of pondering the following options:

  1. Was Vinge very with it?
  2. Was Bova knowing enough he would have edited it in late enough?
  3. Was it just put in there because referring to new waves if cultural points something that was common and just got lucky this term was increasing at this time?

Enquiring minds want to know!

The SF New Wave was in the recent past and Vinge got her start in Damon Knight’s Orbit.

Orbit was very new wave, much to the anger of SF grognards.

True and the French film new wave was still well known at that point. Just surprised to see it referring to music in the text, particularly in relation to synthesisers

Anyway.… on to the actual story.

Eyes of Amber:
This turned out to be a more interesting story than I originally expected. At first it seemed like it was going to be a grim fantasy story, where the main character is insectoid, and expecting it to turn out to be Earth after a nuclear war. It then switches to us seeing it from the human perspective, with the demon being a probe, then we switch further out to appreciate to humans watching the story and making judgments on the actions of T’uupieh and Shannon’s choices.

This kind of framed narrative cannot help but be seen as critique on the reader, as it questions if people are treating these real-life struggles on another world as some kind of kill porn show”. It almost feels to me like pre-Baudrillardian Simulacarum theory. When people watched Game of Thrones, did they really want to engage in politics and struggles of people or were they just there for violence and nudity? And then when people are engaging in news about Ukraine are they really doing so as part of a humanitarian crisis or are they seeing it as little more than a TV show where they can cheer Zelensky and do pantomime style boos against Putin?

Engaging in this kind of post-modernist narrative and asking deep questions can easily result in it being dull or clumsy but I think Vinge manages to do so carefully. She considers practicality, impacts whilst still layering on levels of meaning.

Take the problem of translation. She takes the idea that when dealing with these people on Titan it might take someone familiar with linguistics and music, which then creates the unique position of Shannon Wheeler, which allows for the specific relationship between T’uupieh and Shannon. In doing so, though, it creates distance for the audience watching on Earth and then allows for a meta-point about names without clear pronunciation which are often put into pulpy SF. Here they are put back in, which helps create the illusion of an old-fashioned kind of space fantasy tale, and then we see it is because there is no ease of translation between humans and the Titanians so any names would be impossible for anything but the synthesiser to pronounce.

I feel like there is A Lot to unpack here. Ideas around family, queerness, the evolution of mass media, musical theory and many other areas. However, I am curious to see what others make of it.

For me this has easily been my favourite story on here to date (sorry Chip!)

I liked this story enough when I read it little over a year ago, but only now, after reading more of Vinge’s short fiction (what precious little of it there is) and also finally clicking with Jack Vance, do I now appreciate this more as an inventive and morally ambiguous tale.

The first scene reads very much like a Vance pastiche, being set in this feudal and brutish society that feels like high fantasy but really isn’t. But soon the curtain pulls back and we’re seeing all this from the titular eyes of amber, a space probe controlled by a guy who made the mistake of crushing on an alien girlboss. In all seriousness, though, the conflicted sort of one-sided relationship between Shannon and T’uupieh is interesting, not just for the real-world implications (which are obvious), but also what it says about reader-character relationships.

How would we feel about characters in stories if we could interact with them? If only in an indirect way that is not entirely honest, like with the probe. There is a way to restructure this story, quite easily, where it takes place entirely from T’uupieh’s perspective, with the twist being that the demon” is an alien device. And that would be a fine story too, but Vinge does much more by foregoing easy plot revelations and giving us two protagonists for the price of one. T’uupieh reads like a typical Vance character, except for two major differences: firstly, she’s a woman (I literally can’t think of a notable Vance character who is), and also, we’re actually given insight into what she’s thinking about, what her private motivations are, how she feels about this metallic thing she trusts unconditionally. And despite basically being a warlord, Shannon loves her.

This was my first Vinge story, and at the time I only knew her as Vernor Vinge’s ex (sadly I’ve never seen a Joan book on shelves), and of course we lost a great talent in short fiction since she all but stopped writing short stories after 1980. She was a regular contributor to Bova’s Analog, but it seems like once Bova left she didn’t submit to anywhere much. Of the Hugo finalists we’ve reviewed so far, I would definitely put Eyes of Amber” in the top 3. I think I still prefer Le Guin and Haldeman’s stories, but Vinge’s certainly deserved its win. 

I had a difficult time being interested in this story at the start, when it felt like a fairly generic fantasy story, but it became much more interesting once the human part of the story was introduced, and made the story much more complex than it first appeared.

Some of the issues this story raises feel extremely relevant to today. The discussions about releasing footage of death, and why people want to see that, seem especially relevant with social media and how events like the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of mass shootings in the US are depicted and discussed.

The discussion of machine compared to human translation also feels relevant. It makes me think of tools like Google Translate and automatic captioning, which can help break down barriers for communication, but are nowhere near as good as having a translator do the work. Just like in the story, these tools can cause problems when they are relied on as a replacement for a trained translator.

I don’t think I agree that the humans should be interfering with other cultures on other planets, and trying to impose their own morality on an alien culture. I feel like the story was leaning towards interfering being the right thing to do, but I’m glad that it was at least discussed whether or not it was OK.

Despite it taking a while to catch my interest, I really liked this story.

It’s very cleverly layered– because it starts out sounding like a high fantasy and I was initially distracted by what the heck is this ecology” before we got to the actually this is science fiction” reveal. As a child of Star Trek, it is impossible for me not to put this in the context of the Prime Directive and wind up wondering how much that particular aspect of Star Trek had penetrated the zeitgeist and whether Vinge could have been responding to that. Because we get that brief outburst of it’s not our place to impose morals” which gets overruled pretty immediately. And there’s definitely a commentary in here on how chasing ratings can damage science– but also very much a don’t live your life by pretending it’s a story” commentary. The scientists have all very clearly forgotten that these are real people on the other end– and I think the wrong was done well before the attempt at stopping the murder. The wrong is them manipulating the aliens by pretending to be demons. I don’t have a moral issue with let’s try to stop these people from murdering each other”, but I have massive issues with pretending to be a demon” and whether that bit is ethical is never discussed. (And honestly, I think there’s an inconsistency there, in that they don’t feel like they can be honest about what they are and instead fit into the framework of the local beliefs while also attempting to interfere with the local beliefs.) This is, however, the most interesting one we’ve read yet, one that actually feels like a story.

I was also thinking of the Prime Directive during this story.

I was thinking of it too but wondering the other way, if it influenced the Star Trek: TNG episode Who Watches the Watchers, where they are on an anthropological observation mission and accidentally create a belief that Picard is a God.