NESFA Members' Reviews

Singularity: Vernor Vinge

A book and story reviews by Mark L. Olson

What impresses me most about Vernor Vinge, I think, is how he started so well thirty-five years ago and just kept on getting better. He has never been a prolific writer - most years he only published a single story or novel, and some years he published nothing - but everything he has written is worth reading and some of his stories are among the best SF ever written.
Here is one reader's look at his career.

Vinge's second story, "Bookworm, Run!" appeared in 1966 in Analog. "Bookworm, Run!" is a fine story about a computer-enhanced chimp in a secret government lab. The chimp's intelligence has been brought up to human, but all the chimp really wants to do is read - he's a nerdish proto-fan, not very comfortable among people, and in love with his books - E. E. Smith is one of his favorite writers. Out of curiosity, he uses his linked computer to nose around in top secret files, memorizes all of the US's secrets, is discovered, and runs away. He's caught, but his partial success points out a great danger: enhanced by this technology, a chimp is a match for the best the US can offer. What will it do for a human? Change both humanity and human society beyond recognition, that's what. This was Vinge's first approach to the Singularity - more on that, later.

His next story, "Accomplice" is fairly minor, but it is the first story I know of to really think about computer animation and the use of computers to produce movies. (Vinge's main mistake was to imagine a much higher quality for the early work. In his story, the first thing to be animated is The Lord of the Rings, rather than TV commercials!)

The first story of the series which ultimately made up Tatja Grimm's World came next. The series started out as light adventure with a lovely fannish touch. It is set on a world which has been inhabited by humans for a long time, but which lost its technology somehow and has been static long enough for a single fantasy magazine to have been published continuously for over 700 years. And now the Regent of Crownesse plans to burn the only complete run in existence in a potlatch ceremony. Tatja Grimm - a young genius who wandered into civilization from one of the barbarian parts of the world - and friends are off to save it. It's great fun.
The series later turned, well, grimmer, as Vinge thought more about how such a genius could arise and how these people came to be living on this world in a permanent early-modern culture. The answer is chilling and again involves the Singularity.

"Original Sin", in 1972 was a triumph of Vinge's imagination. It takes place after the Singularity. (Vinge's Singularity is the point where technology - usually computer technology - has advanced so far and so fast that society is no longer really comprehensible to someone from today. We simply can't relate to the issues, the problems, and the aspirations of a member of a post-Singularity culture. Post-Singularity humans are alien to us in important ways.)
Here a few humans are on an alien planet to break a human-imposed embargo on advanced technology. High tech is embargoed because the aliens are super-intelligent and super-nasty. They only live about two years, but even with their short life spans, their intelligence has enabled them to develop a 20th century level of technology in less than fifty years. They are carnivores and their young spend their formative months in packs which eat everything in sight, including their elders. They make the creatures in the movie Alien look positively homey.
The high technology that the humans want to peddle is tailored longevity drugs...
The alien society is fascinating. The alien's sheer intelligence has allowed them to adopt a lot of human customs in spite of conflicts with their innate nature. (They can see quite clearly that if they retain their traditional culture (dog-eat-dog to the nth) they will never break out of their vicious cycle.) Interestingly, they are mostly Christians - human missionaries got there early and they were very much attracted to a religion in which they could hope for forgiveness. (One of the nicer lines in the story is "You Humans are lucky: you find it so easy to be good.") It's a major effort of will for them not to kill the defenseless humans in their midst.
The post-Singularity human society is only faintly alluded to, but its technology is appropriately incomprehensible. For example, someone mentions interstellar travel in passing and makes the comment "remember spaceships?" However they travel between the stars, it is no longer by spaceship. The only gadget the humans use is something called 'mam'ri which appears to be something like a pile of cloth with some sparkly light in it. They fold it and finger it and things happen. No explanation is given, but it is clearly a very advanced technology. Another time, a human is trying to explain to an alien why he can't use his 'mam'ri: he'll be detected. How will he know if he's detected? Bad luck. The human 'police' can cause them to have runs of very bad luck without knowing exactly where they are.
This is a fantastic job of just hinting enough to make the scope of the technology obvious without having to do the impossible job of describing it. (There are a dozen SF writers who could profit from that lesson!)

An interesting novel in 1976 was The Witling, which imagined a world where people could teleport anywhere they could picture clearly. How would such a society be organized? What would this do to people? Vinge came up with good, logical, answers, built a society around them and then set an interesting story in that society.

Five years later, Vinge published the novella "True Names," the first of his great works. It was one of the earliest stories to talk of cyberspace and Vinge knew programmers well enough to realize that their cyberspace would be a world where they were - literally - wizards, a world shot-through with fantasy elements. The story itself is taut, has human interest, a plausible view of the future, a great war (which few people notice) and wondrous things for the reader to enjoy
Mr. Slippery is a hacker in a world where the net has evolved so that a limited direct interface to the brain is routine. Mr. Slippery (not his real name, but a nom de net) is a member of The Coven, a group of top hackers who meet only in a quasi-medieval environment they create on the net. No one knows another's True Name (their identity in the real world) but they're all, in one way or another, working against the Great Enemy - the U. S. Department of Welfare. On its part, DoW is trying to hunt them down because it is usually the target of their recreational - and sometimes political - hacking.
Their games against the Great Enemy are a cross between pranks, semi-serious anti-establishment action, and outright criminal theft. However, things are getting rougher with the appearance of a new hacker, The Mailman, who seems very sharp and is on the verge of taking over the Coven.
Two members of the Coven investigate and discover that The Mailman is an AI which is on the verge of taking over not just The Coven, but the entire net and the whole world. They attack, and their battle rages over the world's net, leaving the hackers victorious and faced with a dilemma almost as great: how do they give up the power that they've accumulated in their fight against The Mailman without exposing themselves to the government's retribution?
"True Names" is a superb story, lean and exciting. It was criminal bad luck that it didn't win both the Hugo and the Nebula - it's one of the most perfect SF stories ever written.

The next three stories came out in the mid-80s and consolidated Vinge's reputation as a top hard SF writer. The Peace War is set perhaps fifty years in our future, but a very unexpected future. Even as you read this, a company in California has discovered the bobble, a sphere of force which is absolutely impenetrable and indestructible and can be projected anywhere. Once created, nothing (including its creator) can destroy it. Whatever was inside is gone forever. The unscrupulous owners of the company use it in a power grab, destroying military forces and government installations and over the course of a few years establish themselves as The Peace Authority, ruling a much-diminished world. (Not only were large numbers of people bobbled for resisting the Peacers, but plagues of new, unknown diseases ravaged humanity.) The world may be at peace, but it is impoverished and most people are uneducated and oppressed.
Fifty years from now, the only resistance to the Peacers are a few wandering hackers who have continued to develop computer technology. They are far enough ahead that they can elude the Peacers, but not so much so that they can do more than hide.
Two things happen next: the earliest bobbles unexpectedly burst, and it turns out that they stopped time inside for about fifty years - fifty years' worth of bobbled military power and angry people are coming back. And one of the hackers discovers a young boy who is a mathematical genius of the highest order. This kid discovers how to truly control a bobble, and how long it will last before bursting, and how to build an efficient, portable bobbler. The hackers and the first of the unbobbled US military attack and destroy the Peace Authority and the world is on the way back towards the future.
The Peace War is a good, edge-of-the-seat story that glorifies the best of the traditional computer hacker traditions and also shows how a genius works and develops a true breakthrough.

"The Ungoverned" takes place fifty years after that. The world is seriously high-tech, having recovered from the fifty years of dreadful peace, but the governments destroyed by the Peace Authority never came back. Most of the world is ungoverned and happy to be so - it is essentially a libertarian world. (Companies with names like the U. S. Air Force and the Michigan State Police sell protective services to most folk, while others arm themselves with weapons a nation in the year 2000 could not stand against, hunker down, and dare anyone to bother them.)
It's not a bad world, but it is a libertarian utopia, so it's not terribly realistic. (As libertarian utopias go it's nearly believable, and doesn't actually sound too unpleasant to live in. Read Vinge's "Conquest by Default" for a darker side of Libertarianism) Compared with The Peace War and the sequel Marooned in Realtime, however, it's minor.

Marooned in Realtime takes place fifty million years later.
About a century after "The Ungoverned" - two hundred years from now - humanity reaches the Singularity. Since neither Vinge nor anyone else can write about it (if they could, it wouldn't be a Singularity), Vinge set his novel much later. In about 50,000,000 AD the remnants of the human race are gathering together to try to rebuild.
Since bobbles stop time for anything within them, they are a perfect method for one-way time travel into the future. Want to jump to 2300 AD? Just bobble up for the next 300 years and, to you, it seems like you are there in just an instant.
In this story, many people did, some voluntarily, and some were shanghaied by criminals. (What a great way to get rid of someone!) But instead of stepping into an ultra-high-tech future, they stepped into a devastated world. Sometime just after 2200 AD, as mankind was approaching the Singularity, something happened. Man essentially disappeared from Earth, technological civilization collapsed, and humanity died out, leaving a dead, wasted world. As the various time travelers unbobbled, they found themselves alone in a strange world.
Some of these forward-in-time travelers were eager to see the future and bobbled themselves deliberately. Not knowing what to expect, they brought along bobbling equipment and enough gear that they could survive even the fall of civilization. And in 50,000,000 A. D. those few have agreed to meet and to try to rebuild the human race - to build back to the Singularity and this time not miss it. (No one ever discovers what actually happened around 2200 - did humanity reach the Singularity and change into something which did need Earth anymore? Did aliens attack? Did the civil war between Microsoft and Sun-Oracle finally escalate to nukes? Who knows? It's a measure of Vinge's strength that he doesn't attempt to answer these questions, leaving the various characters an opportunity to put forward their own answers.)
Marta and Yelen Korolev are among the highest-tech of the deliberate time travelers and are at the center of the plan to rebuild humanity. But in one of the jumps forward, Marta is left outside the bobbles and is - literally - marooned in real time. She must exist in an unpopulated world full of strangely mutated plants and animals - 50 MA is a long time from now - until the bobbles burst in twenty or thirty years and she can be rescued. She isn't rescued; she dies and Yelen is determined to discover why their supposedly infallible systems allowed this to happen.
W. W. Brierson is a policeman - a famous one, for his actions in "The Ungoverned" where he helped to turn back an invasion of Kansas by the Republic of New Mexico, one of the last nation-states. Bobbled while tracking down a blackmailer, he was rescued by the Korolevs. Yelen asks him to help find the murderer, for she has become convinced that Marta was murdered by deliberate sabotage of her systems.
A murder mystery set among all this strangeness! Who did it? Can he be stopped from killing - or worse - again? Will the human race have a second chance? A spectacular story! (And the descriptions of some of the future life on Earth are wonderful - as are the "home movies" shown early in the book.)

After a gap of six years with only one more story in print, Vinge published A Fire Upon the Deep and clearly became one of the top - arguably the best - hard SF writers in the business. It is wildly inventive - any one of several of the ideas he used in this book would have sufficed to make a writer's reputation. It's well-written and there's never a dull moment.
The story is set in the marvelous universe that he'd used previously in the story "The Blabber." The Galaxy has 'zones' which roughly correspond to star density. As star density decreases, the laws of nature change. In the central zone, called the "Unthinking Depths", intelligent life is impossible. This occupies most of the Galaxy. We live in the "Slow Zone"; intelligent life is possible, but artificial intelligences (AI) can't be built, and space is Einsteinian: FTL travel and a lot of other standard SF gadgets are impossible.
Outside the Slow Zone things get interesting: the "Beyond" includes the outer fringes of the Galaxy. AI can be built, FTL travel works and, in general, superscience works. The further into the Beyond you get, the fancier the gadgets and the better the AI. Outside the Beyond is the "Transcend" where AI can become so easy that, for all practical purposes, 'gods' exist. These supernal beings can only exist in the Transcend. They can't venture in person even into the Beyond...which is just as well...
The normal course of development of an intelligent species in the Slow Zone (those that don't just die out) is to develop slower-than-light travel and eventually wind up with colonies in the low Beyond which then develop superscience-based civilizations, and beget colonies ever higher in the Beyond. Eventually, they edge into the Transcend and - if they aren't wiped out by one of the 'gods' by accident or by malice - develop a Transcendent AI into which they are generally subsumed and which then becomes another 'god'.
I won't detail the plot. Suffice it to say that one of the first human colonies in the Transcend inadvertently awakens a terrible, ancient 'god' from a billion years ago which proceeds to devour it and starts working on the rest of the Galaxy. Somehow it can penetrate the Beyond, spreading a civilization- and intelligence-devouring Blight.
A few humans, refugees from the original colony and who are possibly carrying a countermeasure which may have been hidden along with the evil 'god', flee inward away from the advancing Blight, chased by ships controlled by the Blight. After adventures in worlds of superscientific marvels, they find refuge on a pre-scientific planet inhabited by the Tines, the most extraordinary aliens - another of those spectacular pieces of SF invention that Vinge seems to just toss off - I've ever seen. They are utterly non-human, yet Vinge manages to make their society and its strife real and plausible.
Vinge outdid himself once more with another exciting story set in a wonderfully stfnal universe!

It took six years for Vinge's next book, A Deepness in the Sky to be published but it was worth the wait. It is undoubtedly his best book to date and a damn fine example of what the top-rate SF can be.
Deepness doesn't really connect to any previous story or novel, though one character from Deepness, Pham, is evidently the main source from which The Old One constructed the Pham who appears in A Fire Upon the Deep. That may be so, but it connects the two stories in no essential way, and the two characters are not particularly similar. No matter, A Deepness in the Sky stands very well on its own.
Deepness takes place entirely in the Slow Zone where AI and FTL travel and communications are impossible. The time is about 8000 years from now, and mankind is spread over a rough sphere of stars hundreds of light years in diameter. Communication is by laser and by ships which travel at about 1/3 lightspeed with nearly all of the crew in cold sleep.
In the region of Human space in which the story is set, the Qeng Ho is a loosely organized society of traders who live mostly on their ships and carry goods and technology between the stars. There is no interstellar government and while star travel is robust, it isn't frequent. A backwater planet might see a starship every century or so, while the greatest civilized centers may have several in dock (typically for a period of months to years) at a time.
As hinted in A Fire Upon the Deep, one of the limitations of the Slow Zone is that AI is impossible (in fact, it's even obliquely hinted that the interaction between physics and computation is so intimate, that it is the limitation on computation which is fundamental and which causes the other effects such as no FTL.)
As a consequence, no civilization in all of Human space has undergone a Vingean Singularity. The highest of high technologies, while well beyond what we can do ourselves, is not beyond what we can understand - not even beyond what we can expect to have ourselves by 2050 or so.
Captain Sam Park has brought a large Qeng Ho fleet to an out-of-the-way world near the edge of Human space. His official motive is to launch an expedition to the On Off star, an astrophysical freak 50 light years beyond the edge of human settlement. His real motive is to search for Pham Nuwen, the founder of the Qeng Ho.
The On Off star is an impossibility. It has a cycle of about 200 years, brightening from a brown dwarf state to ten times the luminosity of the Sun in a few seconds, then gradually fading away over 40 years and then staying undetectably dark for a century and a half. That's remarkable enough, but over the 8000 years man has observed this star, the period has been precise within seconds.
The latest news is that in the previous two light cycles primitive radio has been heard from the On Off star's vicinity - alien radio. And although very distant alien sources are known to exist, never before has there been a contemporaneous, reachable, alien civilization. Capt. Park heads for the On Off star as does an expedition from the Emergents, a nasty totalitarian civilization also located on the edge of Human space near the On Off star. They arrive simultaneously and then the fun begins.
Vinge develops two stories in parallel: the conflicts between the two human groups, and the conflicts that the aliens - the Spiders - are having amongst themselves.
The Emergents are among the nastier villains I've seen, with a plausible and very, very effective slavery - Vinge has dreamt up a totalitarianism which just might be stable and effective even against free opponents. How Pham defeats the Emergents is a complex, believable, tautly-told story.
On the Spider planet, civilization is building itself again - the Spiders are adapted to their planet and hibernate during the long dark, cold periods. The story is told from the point of view of two of the leading Spiders, a genius polymath and his wife who is the commanding general of her country's Intelligence branch, and their children. (I won't give away any more of the plot: it's good enough to be worth reading without spoilers.)
One minor notion in the novel is that technical civilization isn't terribly stable - Vinge mentions in passing that Earth itself has risen to highly technological civilization four times, fallen so thoroughly that it was entirely depopulated of humans, and then recolonized from elsewhere. The average duration of technical civilization seems to be on the order of a thousand years.
Interestingly, in the two cases where we learn how a civilization fell, it was from its successes rather than anything extrinsic. Essentially, the demand for more and more efficiency eventually causes people to build up systems so complicated that they fail catastrophically, triggering nuclear war in the case of Namquen, and a nasty totalitarianism grown out of over-efficient policing on Trygve Ytre. Quite believable!
Vinge makes all his characters, human and spider, good guy and villain, real.
If there is a fault in the book is that it's not quite as fast-paced as A Fire Upon the Deep - but it's much better!

So. Where will Vernor Vinge go next? It's hard to imagine a book which can top A Deepness in the Sky, but I would have said that about each of his previous three books, and each time it happened. Vinge's writing is characterized by wild, wonderful, and thoroughly disciplined invention. He has mastered the art of saying just enough and no more - I can't think of a case where he succumbed to the curse of over-explanation, taking a Mystery and turning it into mush. Likewise, he manages to write stories which are set in wonderful SF settings. Stories which can only be told as SF - no space opera for Vinge! - but where the setting and the story are in balance with each other.

Here's to a most extraordinary and singular writer, Vernor Vinge!

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