Shaun Farrell interviews Vernor Vinge
Shaun's QuadrantApril 2006
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Vernor Vinge is the winner of four Hugo awards for two novels, A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep, and two novellas, The Cookie Monster and Fast Times at Fairmont High. His fiction often focuses on the advancement of technology and its impending threat to humanity. Such themes appeared early in his work and would later influence the formation of the cyberpunk genre. Vernor was a professor at San Diego State University for many years before retiring to become a fulltime writer. His latest novel, Rainbows End, will be available in May from Tor books.
As a supplement to this interview, and to better understand the full scope of Vernorís work, please see his essay The Coming Technological Singularity.
Shaun Farrell: Like many of your stories, Rainbows End deals with a society on the edge of a technological singularity in which technology is advancing so quickly that humanity is becoming obsolete. The plot partly deals with Alfred Vazís attempt to save the world from falling over the edge, though the means he plans to use to accomplish that end are extreme to say the least. How close do you think our society is right now to reaching a singularity like the one you present in Rainbows End?
Vernor Vinge: Well, the particular form in Rainbows End depends on a lot of technology that we would see coming some ways away. It actually is a more extreme form of the trends we have now with cell phones and wireless and ubiquitous computing and having computers in all sorts of devices that in the past we didnít think would contain computers. Extrapolating those trends is something you can see coming from several years away. There are other forms of singularities where trans-humans suddenly pop up that might come as a bigger surprise. For instance, if somebody got AI right, or something like that, that might look abrupt. This thing that you see in Rainbows End continues for a number of years and it may eventually cause something to happen rather abruptly, but we donít really see that happen in this story.
SF: You do have a character in Rainbows End called the Rabbit, or Mysterious Stranger, and itís hypothesized by some of the characters in the book that it could be an AI, but you never state implicitly whether or not it is.
VV: Thatís true.
SF: So, can you tell us?
VV: (laughter) Ah, first of all I donít think there is a sure answer within the text of the book. So, itís not like somebody can put 2 and 2 and 2 together can say exactly what Mr. Rabbit is. I have some theories about what Mr. Rabbit is, and I eventually hope to put those down in writing. I think some things are apparent about Mr. Rabbit from the book. In a way heís just sort of an exaggeration of stuff that seems much more mundane in the book. For instance, Alfred himself is not exceptional. For a person who reads a lot of present day melodramatic villain fiction where villains do all sorts of things and itís not quite clear how they can be that good or effective Ė thatís also sort of true about Alfred. If you look at all the things Alfred manages to do in the story, they are melodramatically, unrealistically good unless you realize there is a reason heís that good. Heís backed up by these resources. He has all this biological research, but he probably doesnít have any biological research background of his own. But he has a big staff of people.
In the climax, there are only about 25 Marines that are actually involved in an operation that is looking after the entire southwest United States. But they are backed up by thousands of analysts and by a lot of equipment on the ground. So, in a way, the normal people in the story are already strange by our standards. If a person actually looks at it right, the Rabbit still looks mysterious, but in a way a more extreme case of things that do look mundane in the story.
SF: Youíre talking about this massive networking that everyone in the book relies on and uses for their own purposes. Sort of like taking the internet the next five steps.
VV: (laughing) Very good, yes.
SF: Why did you choose a rabbit to represent this character, since we only see it in virtual environments?
VV: To me there are two aspects to that. Why is he presented pretty much always as a rabbit when he could look like other things, and, in fact, since heís sought after by the authorities, itís a little bit unrealistic that he would always look the same and have the same mannerisms. I didnít say much about those mannerisms, but there are things about the way he operates, like a big trademark sign. If you look around you can see things related to Mr. Rabbit. I think that is necessary because Iím a human writer with normal human abilities, and my readers, for the most part, are normal humans with normal human abilities. If a person had a special character in the story that was as multi-formed as you would have to be to elude modern electronic date dredging surveillance, there would be no pattern that an ordinary person could see. They wouldnít recognize any similarities because they would be very carefully damped out. So, there is a dramatic reason for making Mr. Rabbit, pretty much, a single sort of thing. Although, he may have avatars or other forms that show up. Thereís at least onr case in the story where I think a person can see that.
As for a rabbit: in human mythologies there are jokester and trickster gods. Iím not claiming Mr. Rabbit is a god, but he does behave like a trickster. He seems to consider himself a trickster. The classic tricksters in folklore are things like rabbits and coyotes, and I think there are a few more. Right now theyíre eluding me.
SF: I read your essay, The Coming Technological Singularity, and in it you suggest that if we know the Singularity is coming, we have the freedom to establish initial conditions, but we lack the foreknowledge to know which actions could precipitate the Singularity actually occurring. Thatís obviously my paraphrasing there. You wrote that back in 1993, so are the choices any clearer now, 13 years later?
VV: Actually, I think there are certain paths toward the Singularity that seem more likely now. And as we go forward from year to year there will be certain aspects that seem to be proceeding more realistically toward the Singularity. In the essay I think I listed four or five. I made them quite distinct, although theyíll probably intertwine as we actually proceed. Of those 4 or 5 I think all of them are still plausible. But in the last five or six years, and also in the near future, the stuff about the internet and ubiquitous computing and the towers of large numbers of people working this thing together, those seem to be very attractive in a practical sense as things that are ongoing, and itís pretty obvious they could be exploited to a much greater degree than weíve already exploited them. Thatís one aspect of the difference in time (from 1993 to 2006). Itís made us more confident that certain approaches are going to be plausible. I personally think the other items I had in my 1993 essay are still plausible and itís not entirely clear to me which would happen first.
SF: One of the things that is very interesting to me in Rainbows End is the concept of wearing. These people have contact lens and clothes that constantly jack them into the internet, you could say. And then, right after I finish reading the book, I read an article in the March issue of Discover magazine about these running shoes by Adidas that have microprocessors (laughter from Vinge) that can adjust cushioning as you run to regulate pressure throughout your body. So, how important are trends like this?
VV: I donít know about those shoes, in particular. One trend over the last twenty years Ė first of all, we have very cheap, very small computers. And I just donít mean PCís. I mean computers that are almost as small as a postage stamp, the whole computer. The first thing they discovered about these is if you put them in machines that in the past we didnít think needed computers, they simplify the machines. For instance, putting a computer in a camera. When that was first done there were people who said, ďYeah, well we could also put a giraffe in a camera too. Why?Ē On the other hand, the camera containing a computer can do all the things mechanical parts can do but with much more simple mechanical parts. Or printers. If you look inside an electric printer from 1965, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of moving parts. If you look in a printer probably like the one you have in your house, it probably doesnít have more than two or one visible moving parts. Thereís a rod and the print heads slide back and forth on the rod, right? One reason that is possible is the computer inside the printer is taking responsibility for making each of the inkjets fire. Thatís very complicated, but thatís what computer programs are for.
So, the computer itself became very, very, very cheap, and as a result it was possible to use that to substitute for the high cost of moving parts that handle the same logic. In fact, it even gets to the point where you donít have to make your physical equipment be as precisely machined. Suppose the moving parts have a lot of slop to them, if the computer has a sense of what the slop is it can compensate for that.
In the 1980s, this issue of embedded microcontrollers, which is the term for these very small computers in other machines, came along. The next stage is that (embedded microcontrollers) start getting networked, generally with wireless. Thatís the era we are getting into now. So, just like in 1980 when someone would say, ďThatís absurd to put a computer in a camera,Ē now people like you and me say, ďOh, a computer in a Coke bottle Ė thatís absurd. Or, a computer in running shoes Ė thatís absurd.Ē But, there are reasons for doing it, and if these devices are networked, then all sorts of very strange things happen. In a way the environment itself begins to wake up.
I remember I was at a talk (Bruce Sterling) gave once, and he said, ďWhen this is in place, and there are wireless chips in my clothes, when I get up in the morning itís going to simply my life enormously. Thereís all this stuff I wonít have to consciously think about anymore. If I donít know where my cowboy boots are, they will tell me.Ē
SF: Thatís frightening.
VV: Yeah, and when you think about it, if the objects in the environment understand what they are, and if they know where they are, which is doable if theyíre networked, then the reality of self begins to wake up. That by itself might not be a Singularity. I donít mean to say that your cowboy boot is humanly intelligent, but if it knows what it is, where it is, and if it can communicate with its nearby neighbors, that means every object, in principle, can communicate with every other object in the world. At that point the whole idea of wearables means the wearable is the immediate interface we have to this new world. So, it should be as important as the PC was to the internet.
SF: This proliferation of small computers goes back to what you called in Rainbows End, I think, ďno inside parts.Ē
VV: Letís see, something like, ďno user serviceable parts.Ē
SF: Yes, so no one can see how anything works or repair anything.
VV: Which is not that much of an exaggeration over right now. If you open the hood of your car and wanted to do something more complicated than changing the oil, youíre sort of out of luck unless you have a way to communicate with the computer, and unless the manufacturer of the car wants to let you know how to talk to the computer. Even then, if the computer dies Ė this fraction of an ounce of equipment within the car Ė if that dies, that 450 horsepower engine is not going anywhere. Which, actually, is very scary. If there was some way of knocking out computers area wide, right now that would be a major disaster. But in five or ten years it would mean everything stops.
SF: There are other themes in Rainbows End I want to get to, one of them being terrorism, which plays an important role. Do you think terrorism and warfare aids technological advancement of slows it?
VV: Historically, warfare has pushed technologies. We are in a situation now if certain technologies become cheap enough, itís not just countries that can do terrible things to millions of people, but criminal gangs can do terrible things to millions of people. What if for 50 dollars you buy something that could destroy everybody in a country? Then, basically, anybody whoís having a bad hair day is a threat to national survival. I think John Brunner had this rather vividly set out in one or more of his books. He saw it as the end of civilization. You draw one line that shows the cost of a terrible device, and the corresponding line is how many people in the world could get it. He had a very vivid story in which a time traveler comes back from a point in time in which humanity had killed itself, and it wasnít really because of a nuclear war. It was just because the weapons got so cheap, whether they were nuclear or not, that various disinfected individuals had just wiped out civilization. When it gets down to 40 or 30 dollars, how many days would civilization have left? At present I donít think this is actually that big an issue. Although terrorism, even nuclear terrorism, is very, very scary, itís actually not as scary as the Soviet Union/US relationship was in the 70s and 80s where they werenít talking about one or two nuclear weapons. They were talking about 10 or 20 thousand nuclear weapons.
SF: Destroying the earth ten times over, that whole thing?
VV: That was the argument at the time. It would certainly destroy the countries involved and perhaps end civilization. Now, even with nuclear weapons, terrorism doesnít provide that. Looking ahead, and this is what Alfred Vazís concern was in Rainbows End in about the year 2025, he considers, probably rightfully so, that the world is very close to the point where anyone with a bad hair day can wipe out a small sized country. At that point, in Rainbows End, the countries of the world get together and say, ďWe have a bigger enemy than each other. We have to figure out some way to protect our people from a very small number of people.Ē
Alfred, at some point, reviews the history of the past decades and theyíve done many good things. One thing theyíve done is try to reduce the amount of real injustice in the world. There are people who are really full of hatred because they have been wronged, but they might be reasonable people if not for that. Reducing legitimate grievances is a major anti-terrorism thing. In this story, that had happened. But these devices still had been getting cheaper and cheaper, and Alfred and other national intelligence people are very uneasy about this.
SF: Letís talk about some of the literary inspirations behind Rainbows End. In the book there is a movement to destroy book, ironically in the name of preservation. We see this theme in other books, such as Fahrenheit 451, where advanced societies destroy literature. What is it about technological advancement that threatens literature?
VV: First of all, the situation in my story Ė
SF: You know, it is quite different. I didnít phrase that right.
VV: They werenít trying to destroy literature, but they were destroying books.
SF: They were making them available to everybody.
VV: Right. It was very fast digitization. It was so fast it took no prisoners. The things being digitized were destroyed. I had a lot of fun working on that. The stuff wasnít really destroyed; it was shredded. One of the characters says, ďItís been shredded, but weíre going to save them in a special nitrogen atmosphere, so it actually will be better preserved than when it was sitting in libraries.Ē I hope, and I think, that nondestructive digitization will continue to get better so it will never be an issue. This is one aspect of the story that will almost certainly be trumped well before 2025. I had to phrase the story carefully to make it plausible at all. The Google digitization Ė I think their official goals are not as extensive as the stuff in the story. And theyíre also having trouble with intellectual property rights with people who are complaining about the copying going on. Google, though, by 2009, or whatever, they are going to be very well on the way to doing this. What they were doing in my story was more extensive and they had also solved the property rights issue.
There is also the possibility that the shredding was being done, in part, because of political issues. So, it definitely was one of the more controversial things in the story. Not as destructive as Fahrenheit 451 where they are destroying the data as well as the books.
SF: I thought it was funny that when the machines started shredding the books at the UCSD library they started in the science fiction section because there would be ďless complaints.Ē It was like you were saying, ďHey world, we were the ones who predicted this and now weíre the first ones to go.Ē Or the first ones to be immortalized, depending on how you look at it.
VV: (laughing) Thatís one thing about writing science fiction, especially at book length. If the reader is already engaged, they like that. Itís hard to do extra things like that, and do everything else, in a short story.
SF: Some of the writers you make reference to are Ray Bradbury, J.K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett. How did you choose which authors to include?
VV: They were the authors I liked. In the case of Pratchett, so much of his stuff is clearly matched to technology thatís going on in the real world. I think itís very likely that if the sort of progress I talk about in this story happens that fans of Terry Pratchett will do things like they do in this story. With the wearables and the ultra fine networks, cyberspace has leaked out into the real world. You can see it all around you. And setting that with Terry Prachettís world, or J.K. Rowlingís world, itís not surprising that those people would have even more public visibility than they do now.
SF: Rainbows End is very, very open-ended. Will you be writing sequels to this?
VV: I certainly hope so. I actually have a lot of ideas for the sequel. Some of them youíve raised, like who is Rabbit? Where do those mice go (at the end of the book)? You noticed those escaped, and what were they up to? Actually, they probably werenít up to much of anything. If a person looks at the experiments being done on them, it wouldnít be surprising to expect strange things from those mice.
SF: Just as a reader, you really should write a sequel, I think. It was really good and I would like some more of it.
VV: Yeah, I will personally be disappointed not to have a sequel. There are lots of trajectories there, and I have a pretty good idea where the trajectories come down, and I think there could be a satisfying story there. I currently have a three book contract with (Tor). I donít know if one of these three books will be the sequel weíre talking about, but Iím confident it could be.
SF: I have a few more questions moving away from Rainbows End a bit. I read an interview with you from the September 15, 2003 issue of Strange Horizons. I was kind of touched by something you said there. You said that since you had quit teaching, you were actually disappointed in the amount of writing you had accomplished.
VV: When I was teaching I didnít have very much time to write. It was almost all during the summers. If summer is three months, then just scaling it up you would expect to write four times as much, right? Itís not surprising that didnít happen, but itís also a surprise it didnít go up by two! This book is coming out seven years after my last book, and my last book was seven years after the book before that. I think I understand some of the reason this book went so slowly. I was doing a lot of study about writing, and I also wrote a big hunk of another novel that is in deep freeze. I also wrote two or three novellas. So, it wasnít like I was completely brain dead, but I did not maintain focus as much as I should have. That was a disappointment, and Iím hoping to correct that on the next novel. As my friends point out, if you wait seven years between novels, metaphorically speaking, all of your fans have died. Youíre starting out all over again.
SF: Well, we certainly enjoy the quality of your books.
VV: Thank you.
SF: What writers have inspired you most?
VV: There are a lot of writers Iíve learned things from. There are four or five writers in my formative years, age 7 to 21, who were especially important to me. Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke. Heinlein wrote the first book I ever read, Between Planets. My parents were actually beginning to get worried because in second grade or so I really could not seem to read. Then I came across Between Planets and science fiction as a whole in the early 1950s. Science fiction was not nearly as big a thing then, and certainly not in my part of the world.
I couldnít find stories where in the end of the story the world was different than the beginning of the story. Sometimes I would run into cheating versions of that where it would look like it was different, but then it was a dream and really the world hadnít changed. I really loved the stories where the world was changed, and I discovered that science fiction was the genre where that happened a lot. Iím sure I could list other (authors), but if I start doing that Iíll leave out really important names that will bug me.
I had a very strange experience four or five years ago. As a person growing up (you) find the types of books (you) like, and (you) can read them as fast as (you) can read. Then you reach a certain point in your life where you can only find books you really like as fast as they can be written. And suddenly the world is a sadder place because you can read books much faster than they can be written. Starting at about age 25, I was at a point where I could only read good books as fast as they were written. Not by me, but by somebody else. I had a funny experience about five years ago. Somehow I had not read any Terry Pratchett. And for an entire summer if was being a kid again because I could read Terry Pratchett books as fast as I could read! Iím now at a point, though, where I can get Pratchett books only fast as he writes them, which actually is miraculously fast.
SF: He usually has two a year.
VV: He is really remarkable, and for being so good.
SF: If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?
VV: (laughing) Iím not very good at collaborating. My whole life I think Iíve collaborated twice and it hasnít been on novels. The people I listed as my heroes, I would have been so honored to have collaborated with them. But as far as the people who are around right now, I think there are people, but itís hard to imagine the deal being put together so weíd both be happy.
SF: I get the most interesting answers on that question.
VV: Actually, I donít think thatís a question I have ever been asked. I think that is an element in your repertoire Ė a lot of them, Iím sure, are weasel worded answers like mine. But there would also be answered that are straight forward, and those would be very thought provoking.
SF: There are some people who know exactly who they would work with, and then there are a couple who say, ďI donít collaborate. Not going to happen.Ē
VV: Sometimes guys are so good when they write together. There are star collaborations and when people see their names together they immediately go after it. Like Niven and Pournelle.
SF: Anderson and Herbert.
VV: Yes. Proehl and Kornbluth. Kornbluth died in 55 at age 35, and heíd written a lot. It is depressing that somebody that good is not still generally known about. That brings up another collaboration and another guy who died real young, Henry Kuttner. His collaboration was with C. L. Moore. By herself, Moore should be listed as a great science fiction writer. But together Moore and Kuttner wrote a lot of stuff. They were also married. They were so good at it that apparently (and this was back in the time of manual typewriters before PCs) one of the two would be writing a story, and if they got blocked, they would go away and do something else. And while they were gone the other would come in and sit down at the typewriter and carry on. So, there are a lot of stories where itís not clear who wrote them. But they were collaborations to a small degree or a large degree. I think the question you asked is very interesting, but also just the general issue of collaborations is interesting. All the way to the present shared universe stuff, especially what Jim Baen is supporting at Baen books.
SF: Is there any book you would like to write outside the fields of speculative fiction?
VV: The answer is very close to a firm no. I donít like to close off my options, but I have no interest in writing nonfiction. There have been some good science fiction writers who have discovered they could make an enormous amount of money by writing suspense or thriller. So, if somebody wants to give me an enormous amount of money to write a suspense novel, I would do that, but itís not like I have an inclination. My strength coming in was knowledge of the science fiction genre and some knowledge of science and technology. Iíve played on those strengths, and over the years Iíve tried to get better at the characterization.
SF: What can we expect from you in your writing over the next few years?
VV: Well, I have this three book contract with Tor. I have a couple of books clearly set out for my Zones of Thought, sequels or prequels to A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep. I would like to do so something more with my Marooned in RealTime universe with novels, and I have some things that are right angles to all of those that I might want to do. I think (The Cookie Monster) could easily be made into a fun novel.
SF: Does that have to do with computer cookies?
VV: Yes. However, thatís a spoiler. If youíre reading the story and you know thatís the reason for the word ďcookie,Ē youíll probably guess what the story is about much earlier. This is a novella or short story, so I donít feel bad.
SF: Vernor, is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
VV: Well, the book comes out in May. I hope they like the book. I canít think of anything else.
SF: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
VV: Youíre welcome.