Vernor Vinge Norwescon 33
12 October 2009
33 is proud to host
Vernor Vinge as Writer
Guest of Honor.
Dr. Vinge is the author of such works
“True Names” (1981),
A Fire Upon the Deep
(Hugo Award winner, 1992),
A Deepness in the Sky
(Hugo, Campbell, and Prometheus Awards winner, 2000), and "Fast
Times at Fairmont High" (winner Hugo Award for Best Novella, 2002).
His latest novel,
Rainbows End, won
the Hugo and Locus Awards in 2007.
While a professor of
mathematical and computer sciences
San Diego State
University (he retired in
2000 to pursue writing full-time), Dr. Vinge explored the idea that
accelerating technological change would fairly quickly result in a
world qualitatively different from today, and in some ways
unknowable, in his essay “The
Coming Technological Singularity.”
His work often deals with people exploring the boundary of this
Dr. Vinge took time this week to talk
McCauley about important
philosophical questions, technology wish lists, and a glimpse
of what’s on his desk (including a peek at the draft for The
Children of the Sky!) for the
(Editor’s Note: All links added by
Norwescon: Lots of folks know
you as the originator of the term "technological
singularity", and some
people know about your early and eerily predictive take on networked
culture and security in "True Names". What don't we know
about where you were especially prophetic?
Vinge: So far I'm pretty happy
with the track record of Rainbows End, though the transition
from "this is crazy" to "this is blasé" is happening painfully fast
for that novel.
Norwescon: Do you have any
spectacular misses that you want to share?
Vinge: :-) There are some
extremely embarrassing miscues in my story,
which is reprinted in
The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge.
It's a good example of a common feature of science fiction: the
mixture of wildly wrong speculations with occasional bull’s-eyes.
Norwescon: When can we expect
Rainbows End the movie? Or a graphic novel adaptation of
"True Names"? How do you feel about your work being adapted in other
Vinge: No plans for such are
on the horizon :-)
Such adaptations can be wondrous
things (better than the original), but commercial, legal, artistic
issues make them rare events.
Norwescon: I'm fascinated by
how people who create things actually get things done. But I hardly
ever hear writers asked about their process or their writing
environment. Would you be willing to show us your workspace?
Vinge: I've attached two pics.
Vernor Vinge’s workspace,
Work in progress screenshot of
Vernor Vinge’s upcoming novel The Children of the Sky
Norwescon: What tools do you
use when you write?
and the common tools therein. Most of my story notes are in the
manuscript file itself – like comments in a computer program. (In
fact, in the screenshot, you can see work from my current draft of
The Children of the Sky. That's all comments except for the
text with the wide left margin.)
Nowadays, I use network resources all
the time of course. It's hard to imagine what life was like before
computers and networks, when discovering facts required days of
Norwescon: As an author and
speaker, how do you keep organized?
Vinge: Mainly with old-fashioned text
oriented apps for mail, record keeping, remindering, and story
planning/writing. In more recent times,
search has become more
and more important for keeping track of the local midden.
Norwescon: What is your
typical daily work schedule?
Vinge: When I'm writing a
first draft, I try to do 1500 words (about 5 manuscript pages) per
day; when I've done my 5 pages, I can quit for the day! When I'm
revising, I generally have an hour-count goal per day.
Norwescon: You invented a
creative way of dealing with the
Fermi paradox in A
Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, and "The
Blabber", with your "zones of thought," with physics changing in
different areas of the galaxy, affecting levels of technology and
intelligence, and Earth in a slow zone. But really, why do
you think we aren't hip-deep in advanced alien civilizations?
Vinge: Of course, the Zones
notion is just a fiction to make these stories possible. I think
Fermi's paradox is both a deep philosophical question and a very
practical (and important!) question.
I have no idea what the answer is. In
a way, the Fermi question is the space-like analog of our
speculation on the future of our own civilization. It's
immensely intriguing to watch
modern astronomy close in on Fermi's paradox.
have had a hard time of it lately, with financials markets
apparently heading for more regulation and US government taking a
more hands-on approach to the health care system. Is this a
long-term trend or a short-term swing of the social pendulum? Is
"Anarchists, unite!" still a viable rallying cry?
Vinge: The pendulum analogy
may be accurate -- if one imagines a chaotic pendulum! I think the
long-term trend is constructive, toward greater individual freedom.
Norwescon: You've talked
before about the power of the human/computer interface, and how the
(IA) may bring about changes as profound as artificial intelligence
(AI). What cognition-boosting tools do you use?
Vinge: I think we're almost to
the point of
Logic Named Joe". I use
online search on a minute-to-minute basis (and am impatiently
following progress in smartphones/wearables). Also, I have found
desktop search engines to be more powerful than any pre-planned
organizational scheme. I don't participate in social networks,
though I follow their evolution.
Norwescon: What other new
technologies are you interested in? Are you tracking augmented
reality apps on phones? Personalized medicine? Life extension?
What's on your radar that other people aren't thinking about yet?
Vinge: I subscribe to
This is partly for self-education, partly to follow my life-long
favorite things (e.g., astronomy), partly to track all technology.
Online, I watch places like
I see several broad paths toward the Singularity, and that provides
some structure to what I'm watching (for example: supercomputer
neurosimulations, computer hardware performance trends, network
resources, smartphones/wearables, robotics, embedded networked
not-yet-available technology/tool/idea have you envisioned that you
are eager to have and use?
- Progress in
(that is, going from cool bioscience to effective medical
- (Though it's not been
specifically described in my fiction:) Cheap access to
LEO -- and a real
- Wearable computers (even just
widespread consumer-available head-up displays). Given the
acceptance of Bluetooth headsets, I think/hope that
HUDs should be
consumer items soon.
- Automobile driving automation.
Alas, partly for legal reasons, this could be a long way off.
Norwescon: Here’s the
obligatory "are we there yet?" question. In 1993, you famously
wrote, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to
create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be
ended." At roughly the half-way point, are we still on-track?
Vinge: So, I said I'd be
surprised if the Singularity happened before 2005 or after 2030. I
think we're "on track". I believe there are four or five different
paths to the Singularity. From year to year, one or another may seem
to be the front runner. For example, nowadays networked embedded
systems are going like gangbusters. Pure AI has been in eclipse, but
the kinds of supers we'll have in the Teens may generate some
(Also, I'd amend my timeline
statement to exclude catastrophic alternatives, such as nuclear war.
I think the Singularity is the most likely non-catastrophic outcome
for our near future.)
Norwescon: If someone hasn't
read your work before, what's the best starter piece?
Vinge: If someone is already a
science fiction fan, I would say to read A Fire Upon the Deep
(from Tor Books). If someone is new to science fiction, I'd suggest
browsing The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (also from
Norwescon: Can you tell us
what new projects you're working on now?
Vinge: I'm working to finish
The Children of the Sky. This is a near-term sequel to A
Fire Upon the Deep.
Norwescon: What do you not get
not asked about, that you'd like to share?
Vinge: I think more attention
and mitigation planning should be given to failure scenarios for
networks and embedded systems.
Norwescon: Thank you! We
look forward to seeing you in April!