the Little Red Reviewer

The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, by Joan D. Vinge

Posted on: January 16, 2014

outcasts of Heaven beltThe Outcasts of Heaven Belt, by Joan D. Vinge

published in 1978

where i got it: purchased used











You know how sometimes a book looks really really good, and then you read it and it’s nothing special?  this book was the opposite. For not looking like anything special (and suffering from an ultra-cheesy tagline), The Outcasts of Heaven Belt was pretty damn good.

They came on a mission to paradise - blissfully unaware that heaven had become hell!" what an unfortunate tagline!

They came on a mission to paradise – blissfully unaware that heaven had become hell!” what an unfortunate tagline!

Think about some space operas that have come out in the last few years. How long are they? 400 pages? 600 pages? longer?   Vinge crams all the trappings of a great space opera in just two hundred pages. Everything from the not so pretty realities of space travel, to the effects of radiation, to complex planetary system politics, to how our cultural norms might change based on different environs. To add to the SFnal-ness of the whole thing, time is measured in seconds. No hours, days or weeks, character refer to kiloseconds, megaseconds and gigaseconds. There’s a great little graph in the front of the translating this into hours, days and weeks. It’s in logarithmic scale, making the metricality of measuring time in 10 to the nth seconds make perfect sense.

terrible photo of a really cool logarithmic scale of time.

terrible photo of a really cool logarithmic scale of time.

The story starts out with the crew of The Ranger. Traveling from Morningside, they’ve been enroute for four years, hoping to reach the Heaven system, and open up a new trade route. This isn’t like Star Trek, you can’t just get a message from someone instantaneously. Morningside hasn’t been in any communication with Heaven, but they’ve had no reason to believe the system isn’t doing just fine. The Heaven system had been colonized because of it’s resource rich icy and rocky asteroids and planetoids, and the moons orbiting its gas giants. Any system with that quantity of resources and trade goods would be rich within a few generations. (Vinge doesn’t even dream of Earth like planets.  None of the planets we colonize are Earths. They are what we can find, and what we can survive on)

An aggressive navy welcomes The Ranger, and fires on them, damaging the hull of ship and instantly killing five of their seven crew mates.  Betha Torgussen, engineer  and  Captain of The Ranger, destroys one of the navy ships, and speeds off to safety.  The Heaven system hadn’t become rich at all. They’d fallen in a vicious civil war, one which was sucking up their precious water and air faster than their broken down industries could produce it. As soon as the different governments realize The Ranger is in the system, everyone wants it.  No one really cares about the crew, but everyone sees The Ranger as their salvation, as something that will save them.  The remaining crewmembers Betha and Clewell would rather just replenish their hydrogen fuel and get the hell out of there.


My favorite thing about this novel were the different and unique cultures that Vinge created, and there are four of them: the three warring regions in Heaven belt – the original capital planet of Lansing, The Demarchy, and The Grand Harmony; and Morningside. The humorous moments of culture shock give some much needed lighter moments to this rather heavy space opera, and each culture is developed and detailed.  Everyone thinks their way of living is the best one, the best way for humanity to survive.  Thousands and thousands of year in the future, and nothing’s changed, has it?


Early on in the novel, Betha and Clewell rescue some Lansing kids off their stinking salvage ship.  Lansing hasn’t got much of anything, so Bird Alyn and Shadow Jack have been traveling with very little food and even less water.  On Lansing, anyone without perfect genetics is banned from reproducing and sent to work on the radioactive surface or out into space. Their culture demands that people take full responsibility for their actions, and birth control seems unheard of.  As Bird and Jack learn more about how families and relationships on Morningside work, they get more and more disillusioned with the rules they have been taught to follow.


If The Ranger is going to make it home, they’re going to need to get hydrogen from somewhere. If no one will trade with them, if no one will deal honestly with them, they’ll just steal it. Betha hates to take that route, but she doesn’t want to be stuck in Heaven forever.  Shadow Jack knows enough about Heaven space to get The Ranger around, but how will they escape that Grand Harmony Navy?


Everyone in the Heaven Belt system thinks the other groups have far more resources. the population of Lansing barely leaves their area because they assume The Grand Harmony has a huge navy, The Grand Navy assumes The Demarchy will blow them out of the sky if they open negotiations.  But the truth of the matter is that no one has anything, and smaller communities are depending on piracy to get enough water and air to survive. Even if the three groups can get past the fact that if they don’t work together they are all going to die, can they ever get past their cultural differences?   One of The Demarchy leaders who we get to know, Wadie Abdhaimal, knows they’re all doomed. He knows the only way to survive is to work together. But if he as much mentions that his government should talk with The Grand Harmony, he’s threatened with being called a traitor.


I haven’t even had a chance to discuss the characterization yet, have I? Well, it was great. Betha might not have been my favorite person in the whole world, but she is fully and deftly drawn. Bird Alyn and Shadow Jack were my favorite characters, their relationship is incredibly complex. They obviously love each other, but due to the expectations of their culture they can never have a physical relationship. I really felt for them and wanted them to have the happy ending that a life on Lansing would never provide.  Space opera, planets that try to kill you and great characterization? no wonder I couldn’t put this book down!


The Outcasts of Heaven Belt was my first Joan Vinge, and it most certainly won’t be my last. She wrote a sequel to this book, Legacy, in 1980.


What else have you read by her? What else by her do you recommend?

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14 Responses to "The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, by Joan D. Vinge"

I haven’t read any of Joan D. Vinge’s books, but she has won Hugo awards for her writing. So, I’m not surprised this is good. I’ll definitely be reading her books when I can.


let me know which ones you come across, and what you think of them. :)


It’ll be a long time from now. I have too many other books to read before I buy any new ones.


You’ve read The Snow Queen, right, Andrea? Right?


nope! but I want to! :D


I have The Snow Queen on my TBR following an awesome review of it last year. A lot of her books are out of print so if I want to try anything else she is on my list to watch for at the second hand store.


This a great idea, Sci-Fi / fantasy book reviews. From one book review blogger to another, keep up the good work and I hope you accept this Liebster award nomination.

Click the link above and follow the instructions.




I didn’t like The Snow Queen, but may need to try this one.


I read a book of short stories by her ages ago, which were really good, but I don’t have any of her novels. She’s an unfairly neglected writer nowadays, I think.


I was just at the library trying to get a copy of Joan VInge’s book The Snow Queen. But it wasn’t there! No Joan Vinge books at all at the library, in fact, so I am going to have to wait.

>>You know how sometimes a book looks really really good, and then you read it and it’s nothing special?

Hahaha, this caused me so much suspense. I want to love Joan Vinge, and I was worried you’d say The Outcasts of Heaven Belt was terrible. :p


I have “The Snow Queen” on my TBR pile. Hopefully I enjoy it as much as you enjoy this one. :)


Ahhh metric time. Another Vinge, Vernor that is, used it in Deepness In the Sky, I think. Drove me slightly nuts. :) .


I loved the idea of metric time, and the logarithmic time, but it never worked for me. Every time someone mentioned how many megaseconds or gigaseconds or whatever, I had to flip to the front of the book to get an idea of if they meant 20 minutes or 6 months. I wonder if that turned into a little in-joke between Vernor and Joan?


That was my exact problem, too. I could never easily calculate how long anything was.


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