Vernor Vinge (2008)

Vernor Vinge, who I interviewed in 2008, is one of those SF writers who makes me feel about as bright as a goldfish. This man is a bona fide mega-mind (in a nice pop-sciencey, accessible Brian Cox kind of way). Vinge is influential not only on SF, but on those strange – yet increasingly well-explored – borderlands where science and science fiction meet, those places the shape of the future can be dimly perceived in the mist.

Much of this interview is concerned with the Singularity – it is his coining, after all, and much of his work on and off the page concerns it. I’m not sure I entirely buy the idea of the Singularity. Indeed, I see my Richards & Klein stories  as anti-singularity in some ways. But even there, the narrative shadow the concept casts over all modern SF is dark and pronounced. As Vinge says below, even if you don’t believe it, when writing about the future you still have to deal with it. In R&K’s time, some people believe in the Singularity, some people don’t, and some people are trying to make it happen.  Personally, I think it’s a bit too neat of an idea, too mathematical. People living through times of great change tend to get on with living, even if they’re aware of the scale of said change. I don’t think a post-singularity world would be incomprehensible to us, either.

I may be wrong. Either way, the Singularity is as powerful, terrifying and important a concept as post-engineering SF has ever come up with.

From Death Ray 13.

Vernor Vinge Factfile

Born: 1944, Waukesha, Wisconsin USA

Where is he to be found?: San Diego, California

What does he write? Vinge ( The name is of Norwegian origin and is said “Vingee” to rhyme with “stingy”. He says the pronunciation can get weird, especially when people think it is  French) is a computer scientist and mathematician as well as an SF writer. His work is almost all concerned with the Singularity, even if only incidentally in some cases: how it might happen, what would stop it from happening, and what it might be like after it happens. His stories are scientifically sound, often very logically thought through to a rational conclusion. He also deals with the collapse of our current civilisation in several short stories, and he plays with anarcho-capitalism in others.

Who was he influenced by?: Vinge’s work is proper hard science fiction, and has been influenced by the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. He himself is an influential author, and the questions he has raised in his fiction and lectures have found their way into much modern SF.

Awards: Four Hugos, three for novels: A Fire Upon the Deep (1993) A Deepness in the Sky (1999) and Rainbows End (2007), and one for the short story Fast Times At Fairmont HIgh (2002). He has also won two Prometheus honours.

The Interview

Visionary, author and computer scientist Vernor Vinge can foresee a time where nothing will ever be the same again, a time that’s coming soon…

The technological singularity is something Vernor Vinge really believes in, that moment in time when, as Vinge has it, the creation of artificially intelligent machines will lead to a change so profound in human society that we cannot comprehend what the consequences will be. Why? Because if we can build a machine that is even slightly more intelligent than us, it will be able to build a machine that is more intelligent than it, and so on, leading to a massive increase in machine intelligence very quickly. We’re talking Earth’s problems solved in a generation, the unlocking of the secrets of the universe, the birth of a race of superhuman man-machines. Or the extinction of humanity. Fact is, we won’t know until it has happened. Vinge did not conceive of this “intelligence explosion”, that was British statistician I. J. Good, and others have pointed out the accelerating incidence of technological paradigm shifts in human society over the ages.  But Vinge popularised the concept. He coined the phrase “Singularity” to describe it, as a parallel to a cosmic singularity, where the laws of physics break down – it is Vinge’s contention that life will be altered so much by the technological singularity that the laws of civilisation will break down.There are other interpretations of what form the singularity will take – nanotech or super biotech for example, and many thinkers don’t believe it will happen at all. But Vinge has been scarily prescient. In his 1981 novella “True Names”, he discussed virtual realities, having a profound influence on the  cyberpunk movement, and his seminal 1993 paper, “How to Survive in the Post-Human era”, mentions both direct brain interfaces, which are well on the way to reality, and mobile networking, which we already have. Should we be frightened? Vinge is…

Death Ray: What is so fascinating to you about the Singularity, and why are you so certain it will occur?

Vernor Vinge: Well, first of all, I am not certain it is going to occur, I think it is the most likely non-catastrophic thing for this century. What the attraction is is that it looks plausible, and if it were to happen, it would mean the creation of superhuman intelligence. That’s what I mean by “Singularity”, it’s really an event that is comparable to other major events in the natural history of the earth, the most recent one being our arrival within the animal kingdom.

DR: You set it on a footing akin to a natural event, as opposed to, say, one of the great shifts that we’ve experienced in human history, like the invention of agriculture or writing. You think it will be much more important than that?

VV: Ah, yes. In fact I think that’s a good contrast to draw. Look at agriculture or writing. Both caused outcomes that were totally unpredictable, that caused a phase shift in human existence. But, on the other hand, if you had a magic time machine, you could explain those events, and their consequences, to somebody alive before it happened And they would understand, they might not believe you, but they would understand. That is a fundamental quality of difference here. For a post-singularity intelligence to explain the Singularity to us, it would be like for us to explain this interview to a goldfish.

DR: You said in your 1993 paper that you think it will happen before 2030.

VV: There are all sorts of terrible things that can happen in the next hundred years, and those things are definitely on the table, but what I said in ’93 was that I would be surprised if it happened after 2030, and I stand by that.

DR: Or before 2005…

VV: Yeah, I stand by that too!

DR: If we can’t possibly predict what would happen after the Singularity, how does it affect science fiction writers?

VV: I like to say that science fiction writers are the first occupational group that was impacted by the singularity, whether it happens or not. Because if you’re writing hard science fiction, and if you place that hard science fiction more than a few years in the future, what do you have to say? With the Singularity , you’re talking about things that are not understandable to your market, and they’re not really understandable to you, because you and I are just ordinary humans.

If you think the Singularity is going to happen and you are a science fiction writer, then you have to either not write stories that are set more than the day after tomorrow, or you have to create some reason, either explicit or implicit, why the Singularity did not happen. Even if you are a science fiction writer, and there are many, who think that the Singularity is a totally bogus idea and it’s not going to happen, even then you have to make the same sort of adjustment, because your market consists of readers, many of whom think the singularity is going to happen, so you at least have to wave the possibility off, indicate to the reader why the Singularity is not on the agenda for this story. If you look at modern science fiction, even space opera, closely, you can see how this sort of situation in the near future is being accommodated in the stories.

DR: Yes, a good example of that is Neal Asher, where there has been a Singularity, but the AIs, though they govern man, have sort of distanced themselves from mankind for some peculiar reasons of their own…

VV: Right, and Iain M Banks. There are things going on there with the Minds that he says frankly can’t be explained, but there are still ordinary humans. You need ordinary humans of some sort, something to bridge the gap between now and then. There are all sorts of people that have for years been talking about this sort of thing. It’s impact on hard science fiction and space opera is definitely apparent.

DR: How much of your uncertainty about the post-singularity world comes from the increased pace of technological change, and how much of it comes from cultural relativism? By this  I mean, if you look back into the late 19th century and early 20th century when science fiction took off, there was much more a sense of the superiority of white, Western civilisation, and scientific progress. All these assertions that it’s going to be rocket ships, and rational utopias, and we’re all good Christians altogether, conquering the Venusians. Whereas as time has gone on, we’ve had the ’60s, we’ve all become a little more diffuse in our thinking, we’ve accepted much other ways of being and we’re more willing to entertain alternative possibilities. Do you think the unintelligibility of you Singularity could be explained by us being less certain about or world now?

VV: People say that science fiction is a mirror of the present, whatever the present was of the author. Now some authors alive contemporaneously have very different presents than others, so that’s not an entirely powerful insight. But I think the closest thing I see in terms of an echo of cultural relativism is the distinction between human-centric, human superiority stories versus stories where SF is much broader. Now that’s not racist, white, European fiction, but comes from the same sort of mindset. John W Campbell, in Astounding Science Fiction in the ’40s and ’50s, published over and over again these stories about how humans turned out ot be somehow peculiar within the races of the galaxy. And so in the same sense with Singularity stories, a lot of it is the notion that the humans will make themselves superhuman, perhaps by linking up with computers. Though I think that is one of the very plausible possibilities, it is also much more comforting, because it means we are still participants, this way the human race as a whole can be a small part of the cognitive universe of science fiction writers.

DR: Would you then describe yourself as a transhumanist?

VV: Transhumanism, as I understand it, corresponds very broadly with the notion where humans become superhuman. It has been pointed out to me, from our present everyday, ordinary human point of view, that if our minds are growing as part of this technological run up, then the Singularity wouldn’t look like a Singularity, it would look just like relatively smooth progress such as we have known before, because our superselves, after the Singularity, would understand. I think this is what corresponds with transhumanism – the Singularity is impenetrable only because of our relatively stupid current minds, if we change at the same time, it won’t be. This is actually a something that I had on my list, this smooth transition, but it still would not violate the restricted form of the statement that to us, humans of IQ 80-150, that the post-singularity situation is unintelligible.

DR: I suppose then, and this is a ridiculously stupid question, how do you think in your wilder speculations this unintelligibility will manifest itself?

VV: It’s not a stupid question, but it is an oddly impossible question, if a person grants that the future is unintelligible! However, a person can point to situations that are much more eerie than expanded human consciousness. For instance, there is the digital Gaia scenario, in which we get these networked, embedded microprocessors in all of our physical objects. I’ve done a little bit with this, Canadian writer Karl Schroeder has written several novels about it. And in this situation, the individual little processors may not be superhuman alone, but they are together. “Digital Gaia” expresses the overall idea that reality wakes up. I don’t think it’s very hard to realise that a) that is kind of superhuman, and b) it’s not us. And there is an unintelligibility about the notion that, suddenly, animism is for real.

DR: I’ve noticed that a lot about your work is about communication, about bandwidth, like the dog-like alien Tines in a A Fire Upon the Deep, for example, who network sonically to create  a gestalt mind. Are we coming together as a race, like the Powers in the Transcend? Do you think the Singularity could be described as the culmination of this coming together? If you look at history, we’ve gradually gone from being small groups to increasingly larger groups, to the point where we live in a global society in an uneasy state of almost-peace. Do you see the Singularity breaking down the final barriers and us all merging into one giant world brain?

VV: Actually, that was one of the scenarios in the 1993 lecture. However, the way you framed it is very attractive. We have all sorts of metaphors about networks and bandwidths and processes running on networks that are a little bit like reasoning things, and if a person imagines that it is, as you say, a moving forward of essentially all the good things that we’ve seen coming out  of the last 1000 years, that is extremely optimistic. In fact, it’s so optimistic, if it were something we were talking about a million years from now, we’d all sit back and feel kind of smug and say “Gee, look at everything that humans did, what a wonderful universe we made, aren’t we good?”

But if it’s going to happen before you retire, not a half a million years from now, there’s suddenly the feeling that, yeah this sounds really good, but I’d rather be a little bit further away from it!

DR: I sometimes get the hint in your stories that you find the idea of the Singularity somewhat terrifying.

VV: Many of the things that humans want the most are terrifying. Like to live forever, if you really had the prospect for things like that then suddenly you have to look at issues of identity and self-awareness and permanence. It’s a weird twist on getting your wishes – The Monkey’s Paw. The twist is we don’t have these things defined well enough, so we have to ask, well, what does it mean after a 1000 years or a million years to be alive? Of course, that’s why a lot of people turn up their noses and say, ‘That’s why we wouldn’t want it.’ That’s wrong too, The thing is, if you are going to live more than a thousand years, you are almost certainly confronted with the notion that you are going to become something bigger, and that gets you back to the notion of awareness, and identity, and death, actually. Because a billion years from now, the part of you that is you now is like the zygote you came from compared to the you of today.

DR: I suppose a prime example of that, albeit a very crude one, was Hillary Clinton, talking about arriving in Bosnia under fire, but the video file of her arriving showed something different. Having all these records, they’re like an external memory, separate from our own imperfect recollections. I think that can seriously challenge the way you think of who you are, if you are suddenly confronted with something that disproves the way you recollect an event.

VV: Yes, right. It’s a beautiful example. Leaving the politics aside, all of us have that. I have occasionally been confronted with pictures of things I have vivid memories for and they’re totally different! Though that’s another argument for parallel worlds, of course.

DR: How then do we mesh together our external memory with our imperfect internal memory?

VV: I like to look at things that indicate the Singularity is going to happen. If the software keeps up, and we can handle these gluts of data, then that would mean that we are probably going in the direction of the Singularity. On the other hand, you can imagine getting all of this data, and Google not being able to keep up, or keeping up, but not in a way that’s allowing us to really use it. That would be a counter indicator.

DR: I suppose the way we communicate now, speaking, is the technological equivalent of a 56k modem. But even so, I think about the way the world has changed, even in the last ten years,  the internet has totally transformed my job, and in fact made it possible in the way that I do it in, the fact that I can go onto the internet and read all about you and your work, and read all about the things that you’ve said, before I speak to you, and that totally transforms the conversation that we can have. In that way I feel enhanced by technology, not replaced by it, so let’s hope it keeps up that way.

VV: Right, and that’s really a type of symptom that’s in line with human empowerment and us becoming greater things. And the magic you look for is actually person to person bandwidth.

DR: In your short stories, there seems to be a theme of the cyclical nature of civilisation. Like in “The Peddler’s Apprentice”, where civilisation goes through periods of collapse and then attains a Singularity again. Do you still hold that belief, or is that a product of the Cold War, the time you were writing many of those short tales?

VV: I personally don’t believe in the cyclical nature of history, depending on what you’re referring to in the stories. I think overall, the cyclic notion of history, in the sense that I understood it in the 20th century, is only valid under a fairly short-term, because in the long-term, the ground rules and the context change so much that you are talking about a different game.

DR: Your aliens are especially believable. Like the Tines, a really fascinating creation. How do you go about the genesis of a believable alien race?

VV: There is a deep conflict there, in that a truly believable alien race, for the most part, would not be very sellable. You have to engage the reader’s emotions, and outside of a short story that’s something that is hard to do if you have something that is really alien. So one of the most powerful semi-automatic techniques for doing this is to look around in the natural world. There is a variety of lifestyles, even if you just limit yourself to animals. What you can do is mix and match lifestyles that are radically different from humans. For instance, a lot of mammals have entirely different sexual/social patterns. You can do something weird there, then back it up with, as the critters get technology at least, them being confronted with the same “How do we make all this work without getting destroyed” questions. You can very easily create creatures that in a large part have our concerns, the “Little Tailor” type stories, they’re easy to write.

One of the big things that we notice between ourselves and other animals is strategy with offspring. Like octopuses make millions of offspring, and then there’s culling on those, so their attitude toward young children would be very different.

DR: Like “Lunch!”?

VV: Even if not lunch, for humans there has to be intensive focus from about two days after birth until about age ten, and if it’s an octopus lifestyle, then you don’t have that. In A Deepness in The Sky, I soft-pedalled it, the spiders [the ‘Spiders’, so named by human explores, periodically go into hibernation, as their sun, the mysterious On/Off star, goes out and comes back on again – ed] were quite unconcerned about their children, up until the time that their eyes opened, essentially. There were only a small number that had survived to that point, and then at that point they went into something like human support and focus for the child. So that’s an easy way of doing that sort of thing.

And nowadays with technology, there is also the fact that you can look at cybernetic paradigms, and you can say, “What if that were implemented organically?” And that’s exactly the situation you get with the Tines, they’re a local area network, essentially.

DR: I suppose real aliens would be like the post-singularity – incomprehensible.

VV: Actually, if they were of human level intelligence, I think it would be easier to understand them than the world post-singularity. Because, at the very least you could trade with them, and as soon as you can trade with somebody, you have a basis for setting up all sorts of things. Ultimately, you can imagine very strange situations where both sides have a very warm and chummy relationship with one another, but the actual translation might get down to things where the meanings may be quite different. It doesn’t matter.

DR: In the introduction to The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, you say you found both  very long and very short stories difficult. You obviously conquered the former, but why do you find stories shorter than 10,000 words hard?

VV: The amount of work per word I think is higher for a short story than it is for a novel, and this is probably true for most writers. Let’s take a story that’s 10,000 to 20,000 words. For many such stories, you have to do almost as much background work as you do for a novel. And unless you’re going to write a series of short stories, you have to do it over again on the next short story!

DR: You quit to write full-time in 2000. But you had this influential  career as a mathematician and a computer scientist as well as a writer. Did you find it hard to reconcile those two aspects of your life?

VV: The teaching of math and computer science was very interesting and engaging to me. University teaching is actually a very nice job if it’s in an area that you enjoy, and I’d be writing during the summer vacation. Everybody needs an edge if you are a writer, you know, someplace that you have a special cachet, especially if you’re starting, because there’s going to be all kinds of things about a beginning writer’s stuff that is not going to be real strong. The math and the computers, that was my cachet, it really helped on a lot of stories where you look at it and say “Well, you know, the writing here on this early Vinge is really bad, but that’s a really cool idea.” It gave me enough time to improve the writing.

It went both ways. Although I almost never brought up science fiction in classes, it gave me an insight into how to present and talk about certain things. There are things that are very dry about math and science and computers, unless you step back and think about consequences. In that case they suddenly become some of the most interesting things in the universe.

DR: I understand that you have been writing since you were very young. How old were you when you started?

VV: Haha! I started a story, the name gives its age away, Rocket Ship X-54, and I think I was in the third grade, or something.

DR: How old is that? I am never sure how old that is. We have a different school system over here.

VV: If you subtract five from a person’s age, you get the grade that they are in, from age five to age twelve, roughly speaking, so I probably wrote this before 1954, because 1954 was the far future, okay? I probably didn’t get much farther than a couple of pages.

DR: Have you, thinking about the future all the time and getting a fair few things right, been disappointed by the way that the future has turned out?

VV: Very, very disappointed by the space programme. Both from the standpoint of the ordinary science fictional desire to get a space programme, but also because having self-sustaining settlements off Earth is one of the prerequisites for human survival. Hopefully it is not an enduring monument, to make us humble as we look at technical progress. As a model for technology stalling out, it is really worth us studying. And by the way, the problem is getting the cost per kilo into space down, all this other stuff is just window dressing. Returning to the Moon… that’s baloney if we have to do it with gold-plated rockets, where it’s $10,000 a pound to go to low Earth orbit. We can go to the Moon, but it just doesn’t get us towards what we need, which is real presence.

DR: That’s something quite separate to the Singularity, though the Singularity might help speed that up!

VV: Yes, certainly, it would. But it is also one of those things, that as long as there isn’t a Singularity, getting some safe, separate colonies off Earth is terribly important.

DR: Indeed, it might even save the species from the Singularity if it goes bad.

VV: There’s been some really cool stories about that, if you’re more than a couple of light seconds away from the place where everything goes Borg, well a couple of light seconds is enough that we’re never quite in sync…

DR: If the Singularity occurs within your lifetime, which it should do if your prediction is right, what would be your greatest hope for it?

VV: First of all, safety for the human race and life in general, in a universe where we actually have growing reason to believe that we are very close to being alone. The Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, Martin Reese said in the first chapter of his book, Our Final Hour – an encouraging title! – that we are very likely alone in the universe, and that in the next century we are facing largely self-generated threats to our existence, but if we can get through that, and spread out, it means that life has a chance. So there’s this terrific sentence where he says, looked at it that way, it’s entirely possible that this century, on Earth, is the most important time and place in the history of the universe since the Big Bang. I think that all ties together with the Singularity, the hope for it bringing life to the universe.

Three Worlds of Vinge

Vernor Vinge’s fiction takes place in three main milieu. Here they are…

The Zones of Thought

The cycle that Vinge is perhaps best know for includes the two award-winning novels, A Fire upon the Deep (1992) and A Deepness in the Sky (1996), as well as the short story “The Blabber”.

Vinge tries, successfully, to avoid the issue of the Singularity being a total mind-boggle by creating a universe in which high technology could exist, yet where human beings would still matter enough to play some kind of central role.

He does this by dividing the galaxy into four “Zones of Thought”, in which the rules of physics are different. “The Unthinking Depths” of the galactic core is inimical to the existence of intelligence. Only the very simplest machines will work there, and they are prone to failure. “The Slow Zone”, wherein is situated Earth, faster-than-light communication or travel is impossible, above human level intelligence is impossible, and nanotech does not work well. The laws of physics alter abruptly at the boundary of the Slow Zone with “The Beyond”. Here many popular SF technologies and sciences are possible, including advanced AI, anti-gravity, FTL and more. The scope of technological achievement and intelligence increases the further you go into The Beyond, until it merges with “The Transcend”, where there is no ceiling to intelligence or speed. The Transcend is inhabited by the Powers, godlike beings, each formed by a supernetwork of all the minds from a particular civilisation that has experienced a Singularity and undergone a technological apotheosis.

It’s hinted that these boundaries were put in place by some ancient race, and they can be shifted. At the end of the A Fire Upon the Deep, the borders of the Slow Zone are moved to kill the nearly-Power known as the Blight, which is slowly absorbing everything in the Beyond.

The Realtime

Before the Zones of Thought, Vinge conceived of the world seen in The Peace War (1984), Marooned in Realtime (1987) and the short story “The Ungoverned”. In a future Earth, the world has been utterly changed by the invention of “Bobbling”, a supertechnology that can create perfectly spherical, frictionless energy fields that are impenetrable to everything. The inventors use this new development to bring an end to war, but over time become paranoid and suppress scientific progress to prevent anyone else developing the technology, an edict defied by the technophile “Tinkers”.

It is later discovered that the bobbles are actually stasis fields, and that they open spontaneously after a certain period of time. Marooned in Realtime tells of varied bands of humans, all bobbled at different periods in the lead up to the Singularity and thus possessed of massively different technological capabilities, becoming unbobbled on Earth at a point in the future which, apart from the bobbled, is devoid of human life. These remaining humans start to use bobbles as a method of time travel one-way time travel, freezing themselves in time until other bobbles awaken. This eventually leads them 50 million years into the future, to when the largest and oldest bobble is due to open.

Though several explanations are discussed for man’s absence, we finally learn that humanity has passed through the Singularity and ascended to a higher plane of existence.

The Rainbow

The setting for Vinge’s Rainbow’s End and the novella “Fast Times at Fairmont High” is a near future where the Singularity is about to occur. Virtually all objects are networked (as in the “Digital Gaia” hypothesis mentioned in the main interview), and this ubiquitous computing is gradually leading to the moment when reality will “wake up”. Vinge’s out-of-place everyman here is a poet recovering from Alzheimer’s, who has been cured by new technology. The world’s first AI comes on the scene, in the shape of a white rabbit.


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