World’s End by Joan D. Vinge follows BZ Gundhalinu, who has just left the planet Tiamat because the black hole that transfers off-worlders back to their home planets is about to close for 150 years. Except BZ isn’t going to his home, Karamough, a planet of proud, intelligent, tech-savvy people. He’s headed to Number Four, a nasty planet where his older brothers were last seen. As the youngest, BZ didn’t inherit his father’s wealth and property; he became a police officer instead. His older brothers, greedy know-nothings, lost their family’s legacy. In an attempt to gain money to buy back what they squandered, BZ’s brothers head to the World’s End, from which most never return but is rumored to be rich in treasure.
World’s End is a novella that follows directly after The Snow Queen, a sizable science fiction novel with multiple locations, characters, and narrative perspectives. Smaller, World’s End makes Vinge’s ideas more manageable, but no less inventive. Following one character helps readers navigate across Number Four, a planet with jungle terrain that turns in to desert and later into an area called “World’s End,” which contains the city Sanctuary and Fire Lake.
Written in the form of a diary at first, World’s End follows BZ hitching a ride with a treasure seeker and the man’s bodyguard. BZ writes more about Tiamat and his feelings for the new Summer Queen, which clarifies a lot about The Snow Queen that became mildly hazy because Vinge parsed out her world building crumbs at a time.
It feels like weeks pass as BZ rides in a tiny vehicle of sorts with the two men, all at each other’s throats . . . but it’s not clear. In his last diary entries, BZ writes, “All they say about World’s End is true: To stay there too long is to lose yourself forever,” and “Don’t try to find reasons for the things you see in World’s End. Because there aren’t any.” Their slow drive into a place that causes madness kept me turning pages, as I had to know what was affecting their thoughts and perceptions.
BZ stops writing his diary and a third-person limited omniscient narrator picks up the story because time in World’s End warps the closer they get. Want to step outside the vehicle and get some fresh air for an hour? Your companions may claim they were searching for you for two days! Reading World’s End felt topsy-turvy, like watching Stalker, a famous 1979 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky.
When they finally see the Sanctuary city and its Fire Lake, BZ has nearly gone mad but is hopeful that his brothers are there, and he has a good lead. The group drives and drives. But there is a problem BZ reveals in his last diary entry:
I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. We’ve been traveling toward Fire Lake for days, but it never gets any closer. It’s the terrain; it must be the terrain. We have to detour and backtrack, tie our tail in knots.
What BZ finds there is astonishing — and though he went into World’s End to get his brothers, Fire Lake doesn’t want him to leave. But why does Fire Lake have feelings and thoughts at all?? You may be thinking this sounds like fantasy, but Vinge beautifully twists readers’ expectations, showing them a magic trick and then explaining the science behind it. That blend is what makes her stories engaging and surprising.
A fantastic science fiction novella I blew through in short order. Up next in this short series: The Summer Queen.