Although it's easy to love scifi author Vernor Vinge for his most lauded work, like Rainbows End or Fire Upon the Deep, some of his lesser-known novels are more memorable than the great ones. Such is the case with Tatja Grimm's World, a collection of two novellas Vinge published in the late 1960s, coupled with a mid-1980s short story about the same character. That character is Tatja Grimm, a woman on late-medieval world who mysteriously begins to manifest super-intelligence, super-strength — and a super-ability to edit science fiction manuscripts. That last bit is what makes the novel sheer, strange genius, as well as a fascinating glimpse at the creative coming-of-age of one of today's greatest SF writers.
While the main plot arc of Tatja Grimm's World has to do with an alien conspiracy involving brain extractions, the most memorable aspects of the novel are set in a floating publishing house touring the world on a barge, selling science fiction to the people of Tatja's continent. Called the Tarulle Barge, the boat is full of crusty old editors and Utopians who hope that publishing popular works about science will pull the world out of its dark age supernatural beliefs and usher in an enlightened era.
The politics of the Tarulle publishing house are so well-observed and clever that it feels like the young Vinge, early in his publishing career in the late 1960s, was directly translating what he saw in the SF publishing world around him. The barge's main publication, a magazine called Fantasie, is gradually moving from tales of magic to tales of science, so you've got the fantasy vs. science fiction wars in full swing. Meanwhile, editors jockey for power, writers grovel to get published, and fans eat up every shred of every issue. Of course, most of the world thinks the barge is full of weirdos totally unplugged from reality.
When Tatja arrives on board the Tarulle, via a series of accidents I won't spoil for you, it's just as she's realizing she's dramatically different from other people on her world. At first, we think that's just because she's a science fiction dweeb, but it's much more than that. She's a kind of alien sleeper agent, which she gradually realizes as she comes into her own as a member of the Tarulle team. Some of the plot twists in the novel are a little clumsy, and the efforts to parody the "savage princess" genre sometimes fall flat, but I have never read a more compelling depiction of what it's like to work at a science fiction publication.
Tatja Grimm's World is a great read — highly recommended for its surprising realism and strong, melancholy characters.