Vernor Vinge, online prophet

The author whose science-fiction classics predicted the Internet finds that reality is hard to keep up with.


For historians of cyberculture, science fiction author Vernor Vinge enjoys unimpeachable street cred. Three years before William Gibson dazzled the SF world with “Neuromancer,” Vinge captured the essence of the online reality to come in his eerily prescient 1981 novella, “True Names.” Vinge’s breakthrough 1992 novel, “A Fire Upon the Deep,” continued his tradition of incorporating Internet flavors — the intergalactic civilizations that flourish in its far, far future communicate with each other via a system that’s remarkably similar to the Net’s Usenet newsgroups.

Longtime fans might be in for a bit of a surprise, however, when they read Vinge’s new offering, “A Deepness in the Sky.” There is no Internet analog in this entertaining, intricately plotted space opera, nor is there any sign of another Vinge standby — the ever-popular artificially intelligent superbeing. Instead, “A Deepness in the Sky” (set in the same future as “A Fire Upon the Deep,” only about 30,000 years earlier) takes place in a time when computers have yet to break through to sentience. It’s a dramatic change of pace for Vinge — forced on him, he confesses, by the accelerating pace of events in his own, real-time life.

Science fiction writers used to have it easy, says Vinge.

“When I was first writing science fiction in the early ’60s, it was easy to have ideas that it turned out didn’t happen for 20 or 30 years,” says Vinge. “But now it is very hard to keep up — in part because the people who are making things happen have absorbed science fiction’s mind-set of scenario building and technological brainstorming. They are driving ahead of their headlights too, now, and things are going very, very fast.”

Vinge should know. He enjoys recounting how a friend of his read “True Names” just after it came out and told him that the story — in which human computer jockeys donning alternate online personae battled with a malign artificial intelligence for mastery of a world-spanning computer network — was “too far out.” But four years later, she read it again and told Vinge it was “really too conventional.”

“True Names” today reads more like a piece of reportage than speculative science fiction. William Gibson may get all the glory for defining the word “cyberspace,” but Vinge actually nailed the details. “True Names” includes online gathering places identical to the MUDs (multi-user domains) that became the online rage in the late ’80s. Its protagonists guard their real names from the National Security Agency and other hackers with cryptographic safeguards, just like today’s cryptopunks. And they live solely to log on — the pathology of today’s Internet addiction is all-too-familiar in “True Names.” So maybe we don’t yet have marauding artificial intelligences or the ability to upload our consciousness into the Net; given Vinge’s track record, it should only be a matter of time.

What do you do for an encore? How do you keep on keeping up? In “A Fire Upon the Deep,” Vinge jumped forward 40,000 years to tell a vastly entertaining tale of intergalactic skulduggery, but still fell victim to the perils of anachronism. What the heck was Usenet doing in the unimaginably distant future?

It wasn’t an accident, says Vinge. “It was dictated by certain technical constraints. My excuse was that the situation was one in which the latency — the delays per communication link — and the bandwidth were probably about the same as the 1980s-era Internet. I could justify that because we were talking about faster-than-light communication — no one knows if that can ever be done, much less at what bit rate.”

Most writers, even science fiction writers, tend to reflect in their writing the status quo of the era in which they live. But the plot choices Vinge made in “A Deepness in the Sky” — primarily, his decision to make the novel a “prequel” to “A Fire Upon the Deep” — plunged him into a unique quandary. During the seven years Vinge spent writing “A Deepness in the Sky,” the rate of technological change in his own world accelerated. But Vinge was reluctant to let real-world technological change contaminate his fiction: To do so, he worried, would run the risk of incorporating massive inconsistencies in his future-history timeline. For example, readers might find it strange to encounter an analog to the World Wide Web in “A Deepness in the Sky” when the best that “A Fire Upon the Deep” could manage was a lame incarnation of Usenet.

“I had a big problem,” says Vinge. “I had to back off from certain things, like anything Internet-like. It was a very big challenge, but it was fun.”

The Internet isn’t the only thing prominently absent in “A Deepness in the Sky.” Vinge is famous not just for jumping the gun on cyberspace — he’s also well-known for his views on the potential impact of what he calls “the technological singularity.”

“The singularity” occurs in that moment when computers become intelligent enough to upgrade themselves. Self-programming computers will have, argues Vinge, a learning curve that points straight up. In a very short time they will become transcendently intelligent and remodel civilization as they please. We might need to make a few adjustments.

The possibility for a technological singularity depends, of course, on the assumption that computers can become intelligent. But “A Deepness in the Sky,” says Vinge, “is a look at what the universe would be like if the technological optimists are not right.”

“The story takes place in a universe where computers can’t become more powerful than a certain level,” says Vinge. “It’s the sort of universe that I think most people believe in right now — that we’ll make computers smarter and smarter, but beyond a certain level there will always be things that computers can’t do. Well, this is the universe where that is so. Very large software problems can’t be solved.”

Vinge, a math professor who teaches computer science at San Diego State, is convinced that the “problem of software complexity” is the main obstacle that programmers face in creating intelligent computers. But he certainly doesn’t rule out that possibility, even if there’s no sign of success in “A Deepness in the Sky.” He is quick to note that the current pace of progress, particularly in the area of networking, is beginning to rev up.

We’re only beginning to see the results of what “a high level of integration and of networking” can accomplish, says Vinge. “If a person were to come back in three or five years — provided we don’t have a disaster — I would say that the change in our view of [the potential of] networking will be as great as it would be if we look from now to, say, 1985.”

Who knows? the Net may already be linking humans and machines together into an embryonic super-intelligence. Vinge agrees that the rise of the open-source software development model — which links thousands of programmers together via the Net in massively collaborative software creation projects — offers hope that our collective intelligence may be increasing.

“The Net is removing the various frictions that have kept people from collaborating,” says Vinge, with relish. “It has had an extraordinary effect.”

Of course, we may not all be so happy with the Net’s extraordinary effects, if the result is trans-human intelligence that reduces us to the role of hamsters in a new evolutionary order. But that’s just the stuff of science fiction. Right?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>