Vernor Vinge / A Deepness in the Sky / True Names / Backlist
...For several years...I'd had the idea that the "true names" of fantasy were like object ID numbers in a big database...
Interview: Vernor Vinge
SFRevu: What was the first SF you read? Did you read much when you were young?
Venor Vinge: The first SF novel (perhaps the first SF story of any sort) that I read was Heinlein's Between Planets. That was probably when I was in the second or third grade. In fact, I'm told it was also the first book that I ever read. (I was a slow learner when it came to reading, though I have a clear recollection of wanting to be a "good reader.")
SFR: Who are you reading now? Are there any new authors you'd like to see people pay more attention to?
VV: There are a number of SF writers I enjoy very much -- so many that I'm afraid a listing would still leave some of my favorites out. Some people whose stories I watch for: Poul Anderson, Iain Banks, Greg Bear, Greg Benford, David Brin, Lois MacMaster Bujold, Harry Turtledove, David Weber, ....
SFR: You mentioned that Robert Heinlein's model for storytelling was Kipling? How so? Who else in SF owes a debt to non-SF predecessors?
VV: I assume that Heinlein had a number of writers he learned from, and I can't know where Kipling ranked with him. However, I recently came upon Kipling's ABC stories and I was amazed: In these stories, Kipling captured so many of the techniques that I had first seen in my favorite writers of the 1930s and 1940s. (In some ways, the ABC stories are more extreme than Heinlein's presentation of technology; they reminded me of Zelazny's approach to matter-of-fact descriptions of very high tech. And one of them captures a lot of the political atmosphere of my story, "The Ungoverned".) I suspect all this is a measure of my ignorance, in not reading late nineteenth and early twentieth century SF until very recently.
SFR: Do you have any idea how many times you've been guest of Honor at a Convention? When was your first encounter with fandom?
VV: Alas, I had no encounters with fandom until after I was in graduate school in the late 1960s. Or put another way, the fandom I knew as a child and a teenager consisted of myself and my friends. The first SF author I ever met was myself. However, once I started going to SF conventions (and SFWA meetings) I enjoyed them enormously. The first Con I was a guest of honor at was Tuscon in Tucson. Since then, I've been a GOH perhaps ten times -- and it is still a big thrill for me. I had a great time at Lunacon.
SFR: Listening to you at Lunacon I was pleased to find that we share Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League stories as favorites. What attracts you to him?
VV: The sheer range of his ideas, both technical and artistic. His characters. His use of story series. His attention to scientific detail.
SFR: Did Anderson's book Brain Wave influence your thinking about zones of intelligence in your own works?
VV: There are many things in the Zones stories -- and most of my other stories -- that were inspired by Poul's ideas. But strangely enough, Brain Wave was not the source of the "zones". They grew out of the plot requirement that super-intelligence be impossible."
SFR: Can you give us a quick sketch of the two major Vinge universes?
VV: The "realtime" series (consisting of The Peace War, "The Ungoverned", and Marooned In Realtime) use the invention of stasis fields to explore humanity's future and my feeling that we are very close to creating transcendence through technology.
In the "zones" series (so far: A Deepness In The Sky, A Fire Upon The Deep, and "The Blabber") I imagine that certain technologies are impossible in certain parts of the universe, and then I play out space operas in the resulting fictional cosmos. Here I can talk about the possibility of transcendent intelligences, but I can keep them at a safe remove from human-sized action.
So the two series are about very different universes, but a major interest in both is the question "whither humankind and its creations?."
SFR: In the Zone universe so far we've seen stories in the Slow Zone, and the Middle and Low Beyond? As man's intelligence limits him to the Slow Zone, are stories about zones where greater than human intelligence something you think about doing, or do you reject them as inherently incomprehensible?
VV: Humans could live in the Transcend Zone. (For example, the High Lab at the beginning of A Fire Upon The Deep was in the Transcend.) However, superhuman intelligences can also exist in the Transcend. Thus, writing an adventure story there would be a great challenge for me as the author. Someday, I hope to try.
SFR: Where did you first present the notion of the "singularity?" Is intelligence a continuum? Do computers make people more or less intelligent? Is the future on schedule?
VV: I first talked about the "singularity" (with that name) when I was on a panel at AAAI-82 (National Conference on Artificial Intelligence) in 1982. In 1993, I gave an expanded version of the talk at the Vision-21 conference sponsored by NASA and the Ohio Aerospace Institute (available on the web). (By the time I got to that essay, I had done some research -- and discovered how thoroughly people like I.J.Good had scooped me on the idea.) I think machines and people can become very much smarter than humans alone. In the long run, we and the machines will likely graduate to something transhuman.
Is this future on schedule? In my NASA essay, I said that I thought superhuman intelligence would likely arise in the next thirty years. I still think that is the most likely outcome. Other scenarios are possible. (In fact, A Deepness In The Sky explores the possibility that we never solve the software complexity problem.)
SFR: Iain Banks appears to believe in mainstreaming AI's. His stories are full of creatures of different levels of comprehension that can find common cause. Is this possible?
VV: I think it is a plausible scenario. In reading his Culture stories I get the feeling that the Higher Machines are truly running things, but that they regard humans with affectionate tolerance (though this affection does not stop the Higher Machines from occasionally using humans the way we would use a dog or a horse or a lab mouse).
SFR: I looked in my SF quotes collection and found only one (so far) Vingism. What bon mots of yours would you like to see remembered in the Quotable SF? Do you have any favorite SF quotes from other authors? (The quote I have is: "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.")
VV: I don't have anything deep (and sometimes the quotes just highlight story in jokes). "Hexapodia as the true insight." "So high, so low, so many things to know." "It isn't called the net of a million lies for nothing."
SFR: Has anything you've done been turned into a film?
VV: Alas, no. My novella, "True Names," is currently under a movie option. I fear that my latest novel, A Deepness In The Sky, is not very "moviegenic." (However, both Marooned In Realtime and A Deepness In The Sky have elements that would work very well in movies.)
SFR: Do you think a commercially successful SF film is possible? I'm distinguishing between Sci-Fi, which is Fntasy with bolts and Science Fiction, a reasonable attempt to tell a story where the Science is credible and necessary.
VV: When I was a kid, good SF movies existed, but the creation rate was about one every five years. That was very annoying. But a pleasant thing about the 1980s and 1990s is that there has been a steady stream (maybe averaging one a year?) of films that are good SF.
SFR: You said that there had been a number of good SF movies. Could you name a few? Classic and New?
VV: There might be some disagreement whether some of these are SF.
Classic: The Shape Of Things To Come, Destination Moon, Dr. Strangelove
SFR: "True Names" is now looked at as the first (and possibly most prophetic) SF story that accurately predicted the future of the Internet as we know it today. What did you base your concepts on when you wrote the story?
VV: In 1979, I had been teaching computer science courses for several years; I did a lot of what is now called telecommuting. One night I was working at home, logged on to my school's principal computer (a PDP-11/45 running RSTS ... wow!). As usual, I sneaked around in anonymous accounts -- no need for the whole world to see I was on the machine. Every so often, I'd take a look at the other users, or surface in my official account. Suddenly I was accosted by another user via the TALK program (which for some reason I had left enabled). The TALKer claimed some implausible name, and I responded in kind. We chatted for a bit, each trying to figure out the other's true name. Finally I gave up, and told the other fellow I had to go -- that I was actually a personality simulator, and if I kept talking my artificial nature would become obvious. Afterwards, I realized that I had just lived a Science-Fiction story, at least by the standards of my childhood. For several years (ever since reading Ursula K. LeGuin's, A Wizard Of Earthsea) I'd had the idea that the "true names" of fantasy were like object ID numbers in a big database. Now I saw how easily that could be turned into a story.
SFR: Do you think that in some way True Names may have actually prompted some thinking that possibly led to the Internet of today?
VV: Actually, I don't think that. But I am still proud of the story, partly because I think it resonated and intrigued some smart young people and -- as Science Fiction should do -- it may have helped attract some of these smart young people to put their creativity into technical fields.
SFR: Have you read William Gibson or any of the other Cyberpunk authors? Did you feel a kinship with them? Do you like them?
VV: I've read Neuromancer. I've also read most of Bruce Sterling's work, and the writing of a number of other authors associated (at various times) with Cyberpunk. I think Bruce especially is a genius. He can be extremely funny or extremely atmospheric -- and no matter how bizarre things get I have the feeling that at bottom he is working with the real world and what the real world may become.
SFR: Where do ethics come from? Where have they gone? I'm thinking about your anecdote where someone tears out a page in the phone book in a movie that disturbed you.
VV: I think most people respect others' property more if they have some of their own. I don't know where we are going in this department, though I think things come out worst when the players think they are playing a zero-sum game. My hope is that in a tech civilization, we will no longer be playing zero-sum games with one another. In that situation, I think most people are truly good -- and the malignant spirits of the few can be defeated.
SFR: What's next? Will there be more Zone universe stories?
VV: "True Names" is due to be reissued by Tor this year, together with a bunch of essays by some very neat people. As for new fiction: I would like to revisit the Tines of A Fire Upon The Deep. That race was fun, and novelty seemed to spring naturally from almost anything they did. If the next book is about the Tines, I guess the biggest planning question is what span of time I should try to cover. From the sequel novella, "The Blabber," we know that eventually the Tines get into space and probably have a run-in with what's left of the great villain of A Fire Upon The Deep.
...one of the best SF novels to come along in the last few years, and probably Vinge's best character- driven novel ever...
A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
The only habitable planet in the system is Arachna which has a race of beings that resemble, and are nicknamed, Spiders. The Spiders spend each 250 year period when the OnOff is off in hibernation and then reawaken for 35 years to repeat the process. When the traders arrive, the Spiders are at a technology level similar to Earth of the 1950's but are extremely intelligent and seem to make tremendous leaps every 35 year period that they are awake. The Qeng Ho hope to establish a trading partnership with the Spiders in hopes of learning how the OnOff star works in order to create better star drives. The Emergents secretly hope to enslave the Spiders and take what they want.
The Emergents make use of a mind-controlling technology called Focus that allows them to control people by focusing their minds on single tasks thus enslaving them. At least they're democratic about it...they use Focus on both their enemies and their own people. The Qeng Ho and the Emergents form an alliance to work cooperatively in the exploration of the OnOff star but the Emergents, under the leadership of the villainous Tomas Nau, double-cross the Qeng Ho and launch an attack using Focus and manage to subdue the traders. With both fleets crippled, the Emergents use the Qeng Ho, both Focused and not, to plan to covertly push the development of the Spiders to the point where they can provide the fleets with the industrial resources necessary to rebuild the fleets. For 30 years, both the Qeng Ho and the Emergents eventually develop a compromise society in which to meet their mutual goals using suspended animation for cycle crews through to avoid prolonged aging.
The seemingly simple plot begins to build slowly with layer upon layer of complexity added as time progresses for both the Spiders and the humans.
A Deepness In The Sky doesn't introduce new mind expanding ideas like the ones in A Fire Upon The Deep. There we learned of the different "Zones" in the universe, where speed of thought was a function of space itself and certain technologies were simply impossible in some places as a result. Here, the action of the novel takes place in a "slow zone" of space where faster-than-light travel is not possible (and even the concepts of a "zone" is unknown). Nonetheless, the story is riveting and the reader is drawn into the plot in an insidious, and definitely Vingean, manner. It's Vinge's characters that really make this novel shine. The humans in both fleets are interesting and engaging. The main Qeng Ho characters are the onetime leader of the Qeng Ho Pham Nuwen (the only crossover character with A Fire Upon The Deep) who is now living in exile under an assumed name, trader Ezh Vinh, and Ezh's lover, linguist Trixia Bonsol who is translating the Spider's language while under the influence of Focus.
Though occasionally stereotypical in their villainy, the Emergents have some interesting characters too. Leader Tomas Nau has the knack of appearing benevolent and being evil, while Anne Reynolt is both Focused and an expert in Focusing others. The development of the merged societies is what makes the characters really live and breath but it is the Spiders that are really the stars of the novel. Their society and its eventual development into a space-faring one is simply great reading.
Although it is billed as a prequel to Vinge's 1992 novel, A Fire Upon The Deep, A Deepness In The Sky really is a stand-alone novel. It's one of the best SF novels to come along in the last few years, and probably Vinge's best character-driven novel ever.
Canadian/British critic John Clute once remarked that, "Vernor Vinge is the best living Space Opera writer, on the basis of one book." Better make that two books, John.
Vinge came along at the right time. Long enough ago to get rejections by John W. Campbell, SF's most legendary early editor, and recent enough to see the concepts he's written about flower.
Coming in May: True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier by Venor Vinge, James Frenkel
ISBN: 0-312-86207-5 / Tor Ppbk
| True Names and Other Dangers by Vernor Vinge
ISBN: 0-671-65363-6 / Baen Books First Printing November 1987 Ppbk / Review by Ernest Lilley
"True Names" is a famous short story which anticipates the Internet. William Gibson coined the term cyberspace, but before that, Vinge had written this prescient adventure in it. Important as it was in the development of cyberspace, it's unfortunate that the name occludes the other stories in this collection, for each is engaging, thought provoking and uncommonly visionary.
Vinge came along at the right time. Long enough ago to get rejections by John W. Campbell, SF's most legendary early editor, and recent enough to see the concepts he's written about flower. Earlier authors have imagined parts of the future we live in, but Vinge was able to look into the future and project it so that we can recognize it as the time we are now in.
SF rarely gets the future right. Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of the communication satellite is often pushed out on stage to bolster SF's case as seer of things to come, but it's old. Vernor Vinge deserves much greater kudos for the look and feel of the Internet in "True Names," and for the reality yet to arrive that permeates these stories -- the ascendance of man into a man-machine superintelligence. An intelligence beyond our understanding.
"Bookworm, Run!" (Published in Analog in March 1966) starts this collection, and is the first story the author ever sold. If everyone burst onto the scene with stories this good, I'd never be able to put a book down. Norman, the story's hero, is a chimp with a mindlink to all the data in the country, and all the processing power of the US Government's largest computer. When he realizes that he knows too much, and he knows pretty much everything the government knows, he understands that the old saw, "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." cuts deep. Not only does this story have interesting technology, but the character is tremendous. It would be over 20 years before David Brin's Uplift War created a superchimp this engaging again. Ironically, Uplift War was published only a few months before this story reappeared in the collection. How can you not love a chimp who escapes from a government lab with his most treasured possessions - including a dog eared copy of "Doc" Smith's Galactic Patrol? Remember that it was written in 1966 when you consider elements like cold fusion (or at least room temp), Soviet economic collapse, remote imaging and supercomputer augmented intelligence. The last, what Vinge calls Intelligence Amplification, is at the heart of much of his writing. Vinge believes that we can move beyond mere access to data, to co-opt the processing power of computers and add them to our own minds.
Next, "True Names," the title piece, is stunning in the detail with which it envisions the current and future Internet. I was amazed to find that practically all the elements of William Gibson's Neuromancer were here. In fact, elements of "True Names" can be found all the way through the Neuromancer series. The story is about a group of virtual reality mages who encounter and battle a super-intelligence on the Internet. It wasn't called the Internet in 1981 when the story was first published in Dell Binary Star #5, but Vinge refers to its ARPA roots along the way. The contrast between "True Names" and Neuromancer is remarkable. Though they are in many ways similar stories, the difference is in both the attitude of the characters and the author's understanding of the technology. Vinge was teaching computer science at the time and many of the figures he mentions, from modem speed to storage space, are eerily accurate today. His hero is a bit of a prankster, but believes in community and responsibility, and ultimately in saving the world. Gibson, wrote without handicap of actual knowledge of the subject, which freed his imagination in some very useful ways. His character is very much an anti-hero, selfish and flawed. Both stories are excellent, in very different ways.
In "The Ungoverned," Vinge turns his forward looking gaze onto a nation where Kansas has seceded from the Union and a Libertarian spirit flourishes. Can private police forces turn back an invasion by the Republic of New Mexico? A great yarn, with elements of the earlier Heinlein novella, "Coventry" and Bruce Sterling's recent novel Distraction. The Russians should really have read this before invading Afghanistan. It's a great lesson in the economics of warfare.
The final story, "Long Shot," is about a space probe to a nearby star system and a desperate long shot to save something of a ruined Earth. Vinge's ideas keep turning up in other works, and in many respects, James Hogan's enjoyable Voyage to Yesteryear, just coming out in reprint, is practically a sequel to this story.