Young People Read Old SFF

View From a Height

Joan D. Vinge

Young People Read Old SFF

16 Mar, 2017

Today, Joan D. Vinge is best known for her Snow Queen quartet. In the 1970 and 1980s, she was a frequent contributor to magazines like Asimov’s and Analog, as well as to respected anthologies like Orbit and Millennial Women.When Analog decided to do a special Woman’s Issue (only about half of which was by men), Vinge’s contribution was the cover story. Although fibromyalgia and a car accident in 2002 prevented her from writing for some time, she began writing again in 2007. Her most recent book is the 2013 novelization of 47 Ronin. 

1978’s Hugo Nominee A View From a Height” first appeared in the June 1978 issue of Analog.It was selected for Terry Carr’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year, #8, Gardner Dozois’ Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Eighth Annual Collection, Pamela Sargent’sWomen of Wonder, the Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the1940s to the 1970s, as well as other collections and anthologies. The theme of irreversible life decisions cast into doubt by new revelations seemed to me one that would have aged well. Let’s see if I was right.

View From a Height can be found in TheRoad to Science Fiction, Volume 4, available here.

Young People Read Old Science Fiction would like to welcome high school student Raya to the ranks of the Young People.

A lot of the relentlessly depressing science fiction I read when I was younger was about dying alone in space with no way to return home. Usually it was because of some accident or malice, not by design.

This story takes my habit of dwelling on decisions, wondering if I made the right one, and blows it up to astronomical proportions. I can really empathize with the narrator. I don’t know which choice I would have made. Though I have trouble suspending disbelief that the whole program got ethics approval.

Because the story isn’t focused on scientific oddities, just using astronomy as a backdrop to the real story, I feel the whole thing has aged well. I didn’t spot anything wrong about the cosmology. The only thing missing was earth-based or near earth telescopes quickly outpacing the abilities of the probe as engineering moves on, making it nearly obsolete before arrival at the first 1000 AU. Of course maybe that did happen, but nobody is going to tell the narrator that she’s obsolete.


I was late sending this review to James. He asked me to write it twice. I have been busy with work/life/etc, but I’ve also been busy reading books I like. I was in the middle of a book I really liked on the weekend, and didn’t want to stop reading it for something that I wasn’t going to enjoy.

I’m not sure what to think about this story. It talks about how people sacrifice big things to go to space. In Emmylou’s case, she makes extra big sacrifices because she’s on a one-way mission (to do something that I don’t think was ever made clear, but I guess that’s not the point), and medical advances have made her terrible lack-of-immune-system-disease possible to cure. She finds out that she could have been normal (eventually) if she’d stayed on earth, and is very sad, then gets over it and goes on with her work with a renewed sense of purpose.

The story is interesting enough, I guess, but not amazing. I appreciate the point that some people sacrifice a lot of regular stuff to do great things. I also appreciate the point that out in space, weird people are normal (because normal people hang around on earth I guess)? And maybe the story points out that no matter how weird you are, there’s a place where you can fit in if you look far and wide enough.

I also enjoyed comparing space travel as described in View from a Height” compared with space travel as described in some of the earliest stories we read. Space travel as described in books becomes a lot more boring once it’s not 100% invented out of the author’s imagination. On the other hand, it becomes a lot more realistic, which can be kind of a relief as well.

So, was the story worth reading? I guess. Was it worth waiting until after I’d read the book I really enjoyed to read? Yes, definitely.


Similarly to the last short story, this one benefits from reading at least twice. Once I knew what was going on, I knew that I would want to re-read the beginning.

This story smacks of the YA genre before the recent YA boom was a thing. It reminds me of the YA genre (Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) even though the main character is neither young nor is Earth a dystopia. There’s a hint of political unrest, but really she’s created her own personalized dystopia in space.

She’s also a 40-year-old with the arrested social development of a 20-year-old. It’s actually quite comical imagining a 40-something simultaneously going through adolescent angst and a mid-life crisis. I’m sure I wouldn’t think so if 40 didn’t feel so distant to me, but such is my perception. The more I do, the slower time goes. (Yes, this is opposite of how time perception supposedly works. But if I board a train of thought, 15 minutes can feel like an hour.) But for the main character, it’s the opposite. She has so little to do and with which to divert herself that the years slip away. Maybe that’s what getting older feels like for people? That’s what I hear, anyway.

This story works best if you suspend your disbelief. What’s the logic of sending a person into space on a one-way trip? It seems strange to me: why not send a probe like Voyager into space? Wouldn’t launching equipment to sustain a person be very costly compared to just sending a machine? What does this Forward Observatory do? How would communication that far out work?

The solar sail was a fun concept to include. The only time I’ve seen this concept on screen was in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so I couldn’t help thinking that it was a lot like that. Fragile. Beautiful. Manned by insane, hopeful pioneers.

I was doubtful about the ineffective immune system of the main character, but a cursory google search makes me suspect it’s not so outlandish – and possibly even curable these days.

This story has many flaws, but I can’t help liking it for some reason. Maybe I favour a conversational tone. Maybe it’s because I can relate to the isolated feeling – I was quite lonely up until 15 or so. Or maybe it’s because the misogyny content is trending downward in recent stories. In any case, this story’s worth a read-through.


I don’t even know where to start with this one.

I should have liked this story based on the premise. A woman does science in space! However, any enjoyment I could have gotten out of this story was overshadowed by it’s massive issues.

There are several problematic concepts here. One is the idea that the best thing to do with a person who needs to be isolated is to literally send her into space where the apparently only person she’ll ever get to talk to again is the PhD supervisor that sexually harassed her. Another is the inevitability that chronic illness will be cured if you wait long enough. It is nowhere near inevitable in a person’s lifetime that they’ll get to be normal” (and all my rage at declaring people with health problems not-normal).

Also there is the recurring idea that romantic relationships are only possible with physical touch, which is extremely problematic. The narrator doesn’t seem to have any friends either. Yes, she had to be in a suit, but that doesn’t explain why she doesn’t seem to have any people who talk to her other than her supervisor. Not even thoughts about friends from Earth that she misses/lost contact with, except the love interest that she of course couldn’t possibly be with because of her illness. *headdesk*

I also want to note that the character considers self-harm is in this story, but I can’t comment on how it was handled.

On a note about the SF premise, it seems odd to me that a story that was written about the same time that the Voyager probes were getting ready to launch would be so convinced that a human on board would be the best way to conduct that kind of research. I know automation was nothing like it is now, but surely it was obvious that supplying life support for a lifetime would be much more complicated to manage than sending data back from an automated probe.


View from a Height” is the internal commentary of an astronaut approaching the Oort cloud on an interstellar mission. The beginning of the story is somewhat confusing as the narrator frequently switches topics without transition: which given the lack of context makes it difficult to follow. The latter half of the story is enjoyable as it is more focused and is more related to the human experience than a theoretical journey. The latter section is reasonably relate-able for modern readers, which enhanced the story by making me more invested. One critique would be the lack of action: while the commentary has some level of substance there is only one event which progresses the plot at all, which does add an element of drag to the story. 

Overall A View from a Height was generally enjoyable, however there is lots of room for improvement.