Interview: Vernor Vinge
By Jayme Lynn Blaschke
15 September 2003
Vernor Vinge has never been accused of being prolific, but what his work lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. His first published fiction, a short story titled "Apartness," appeared in 1965 and since then Vinge has built a reputation as one of the most inventive writers of hard science fiction working today. He earned Hugo nominations for his 1984 novel The Peace War and its 1986 sequel Marooned in Realtime, (both collected in Across Realtime) but it was his 1992 novel A Fire Upon the Deep which finally won him the elusive Hugo. The sequel to that work, A Deepness in the Sky, repeated the feat in 2000 and his novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (available in his Collected Stories) completed the Hugo hat-trick in 2001. A long-time computer science professor at San Diego State University, Vinge has recently retired from academia and now devotes himself to fiction full-time.
Jayme Lynn Blaschke: I have to apologize for my first question, because I know it's one you're asked in every interview. But I see no way around it: Can you please describe the concept of the singularity as you perceive it?
Vernor Vinge: My version is that in the near-historical future, it seems very likely that we will be able to create beings that are smarter than humans in every way we think of humans being smart and creative. This sort of technical advance is qualitatively different from other technical advances, and it qualifies for the name "singularity" in that the world afterwards is intrinsically unknowable to people on our side of the singularity.
JLB: Does the concept as you've developed it owe more to your science fiction background or your mathematical background?
VV: I can't say which would be a heavier influence. However, I do not claim that my mathematical background gives me any special qualification for reaching conclusions like that.
JLB: Has your conception of the singularity changed since you first began thinking about it?
VV: Let me do some historical clarification. The first time I ever used the term in the way that I'm using it here was in 1982 (on a panel at AAAI-82, the annual meeting of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence at Carnegie-Mellon University). I had written stories about this sort of thing before then. In fact, the first story I ever sold in the US was about intelligence amplification, and at the end there was mention some of the consequences of such a singularity -- not the term, but the way that things might change radically. That story, "Bookworm, Run!" appeared in Analog in '66. I've discovered that a statistician named I.J. Good had a paper "Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine" in the early 1960s where he does a very clear-cut job with these ideas.
As to whether my concept of the singularity changed since 1981 -- I don't think that my opinions about it have changed in any substantial way. In considering how it happens, which technologies cause it to happen, issues like that, my weighting of the possibilities has changed, but I don't think there's a significant change in the basic idea.
JLB: What kind of impact has the singularity theory had on your writing?
VV: It's had a very big impact, almost from the beginning of my writing. Normally I like to write hard science fiction, and I also like grand sweep stories such as Olaf Stapledon wrote. I find a collision there, since many of the things I like to talk about -- interstellar empires or even interplanetary empires -- now appear likely to be post-human-era events. That's sad, since the present-day audience and I are not post-human. It's very hard to write stories that realistically talk about such futures.
That's put a powerful constraint on how I write stories, but there are some obvious work-arounds. One is to have an incredibly big disaster that sends us to a lower technological level. Such a background allows mixtures and hybrids of technology that are describable. And then of course, there is the gimmick I used in my space operas, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky: the Zones provide a very tunable restriction on progress.
JLB: What impact have you seen the theory have in science fiction in general? Paul DiFilippo spoofed the concept with his short story "Otto and Toto in the Oort," but have you seen the idea expressed in other places?
VV: I think that the basic idea is very widespread. It arises very naturally. As you get into the late 20th century, people who think about technical progress run into this problem, for the most part independently. As time goes by, I think that we'll see more and more that this idea -- the singularity, or whatever you call it -- becomes a commonplace of technological and intellectual discussion. As such, whatever the origin of the idea, it has a greater and greater impact on the writing of hard science fiction.
Unfortunately, I haven't read Paul's story so I can't comment on that, but in hard science fiction, you can often see where the author is introducing something into the story that makes it possible for the story background to remain intelligible, either because superhuman intelligences haven't come along, or because they are somehow forcibly held offstage, or otherwise constrained, so you can still have a story about human-size characters.
JLB: It strikes me that the concept of the singularity would have a profound effect upon religious thinking. Whether the event happens or not, established religions would have to deal with it once the concept penetrates the mainstream consciousness. Have you ever considered these implications?
VV: I would just as soon it doesn't have an impact on contemporary religion. It's the sort of thing that, until it happens, has no new significance for religion. After the singularity happens, if it happens, it may have some effect on religion, either for humans or post-humans. And that's fine. But trying to incorporate it into religion in a pre-singularity era would just be putting religious claims in new clothing. Religious claims do not need new clothing.
JLB: What's the potential of an alien singularity? Are extra-terrestrials facing the same potentials, or is this something that is uniquely human?
VV: How these ideas interact with the ideas about alien intelligences is interesting. To me, the singularity is a great unknown in our near future. It's unknown in several ways. It may not happen at all. If it does happen, what things are like afterwards are also probably unknown from our perspective. So that's a mystery about the nature of near-future time.
In interstellar space we have the mystery, or the paradox, of Fermi about why, though we have really good detection techniques now, we don't see any evidence of alien intelligence. As astronomy gets better and better these questions either sharpen up and become even harder to answer, or we do find answers. So in a sense, Fermi's paradox is analogous, spatially, to wondering about the singularity in our future. In a way, they're almost to me the dual of each other.
JLB: If extraterrestrial contact happened, would it make any difference if they were pre- or post-singularity? Would either version be any less alien to us?
VV: I think a post-singularity alien civilization would be significantly more unintelligible. At the same time, it's a little hard for me to imagine a plausible pre-singularity interstellar civilization. In fact, doing that realistically is one of the significant problems of writing modern space opera -- which we science fiction writers are capable of doing, but it takes some almost fantastical assumptions.
JLB: You took much of the 1970s off from fiction writing. Why was that?
VV: Actually, I did some writing in the 1970s, a novel and a few short stories. But there were other issues. For one thing, I had just started teaching. In fact, even after I returned more to writing, it was almost entirely during the summers and Christmas breaks, etc.
JLB: Different priorities demanding your time?
JLB: Coincidentally, Isaac Asimov moved away from fiction writing during the 1970s, concentrating more on his academic and non-fiction concerns. Is there a connection? Was there some sort of academic cherry-picking going on in regards to science fiction writers?
VV: [Laughing] I don't know. I suspect there are very different explanations here. I'd be very curious to know what they are!
In my case: During the '70s, I was married to Joan D. Vinge. I was not writing with her behind the scenes, but I think there was a psychological benefit to me in the fact that she was writing. I was able to watch her stories being written and talk to her about them, even though I wasn't contributing to them. (There is an exception, our collaboration on the short story "The Peddler's Apprentice.")
Psychologically, that sort of thing is supportive -- I didn't feel so bad about not doing much writing.
JLB: Your earliest published work consisted of short fiction, but since 1975 you've only published about five short pieces. Was this by design or accident?
VV: Unfortunately, most short story markets pay enormously less than novel markets. That's the fundamental reason I haven't written much short fiction in recent years. Whether novels are harder, per word, to write than short fiction -- that probably depends on the individual writer. But the money issue is really overwhelming.
The story size evolution you see in my writing is probably fairly common. If you begin your writing career with short stories, breaking into print is easier because the short fiction SF market is very open to unsolicited submissions. That's wonderful. Furthermore, since most writers' early work is going to get rejected, it's nice if the failure cycle is measured in weeks and months rather than years. So, starting out with short fiction is great, and I think the existence of the short SF markets is a wonderful thing. The fact that it doesn't pay as much as novels often do is something that encourages writers, once they've established a track record, to go into writing novels.
It's interesting that since I have been writing novels, I don't read nearly as much short fiction as before. I'm not sure if this is a cause or an effect of my present writing length.
JLB: Looking back, how have your skills as a novelist evolved since your first book?
VV: I'm very pleased that throughout most of my career, my writing has improved. I may have hit a plateau, but if so that has been relatively recently. I've wondered about why I continued to improve for such a long time. Probably one reason is that I've written so little, my entire writing career is what most writers would go through in four or five years. They get better over four or five years. I got better over thirty years, but only because I didn't write as much!
Someone -- I think Lawrence Watt-Evans -- has said that you have to write (and sell?) a million words before you've learned how to write. That's an interesting point. I have now written a million words. Probably the million-word cutoff happened in the mid-90s.
There have been other things about my writing development that have not been as favorable. For one thing, I still haven't figured out how to control what I'm writing. For many years, I couldn't figure out how to write something that was novel-length. I probably had more trouble with that than most novelists. The last 10 years or so, I've been having trouble in the other direction, that is, figuring out how to write something "just" 80 to 120 thousand words long. As for writing short fiction -- well, I can still write short stuff, but right now I have sufficiently many novel-length contract obligations that I'm trying to avoid short fiction for a while.
JLB: Describe your creative process.
VV: For many years, when most of my writing was during the summer, I would have an eight-day work week with three-day weekends. For the five work days, I could stop as soon as I'd written five pages. What I've been doing more recently is to work for a relatively short time, five days out of seven.
I've found that I can still produce five pages a day, even under this new scheme.
The worst situation is when I don't know enough about what I have to write to even start writing. That's actually come to be the most unpleasant time for me, because I haven't learned how to routinize that stage into a work schedule.
JLB: How has your retirement from academia had an impact on your writing?
VV: My dream was that since now I had about four times as much time to write, I would now do four times as much writing. (I knew that probably wouldn't be the case, of course.) The nightmare possibility was that I might not be able to write even as much as before, because I wouldn't have the mental cross-stimulation of talking with people at school. The truth has come out somewhere in between these extremes.
I am a little disappointed. Since I retired, I've actually written more than a novel's worth of words. But those words have been split across several projects. While some of the stories have been published, they haven't been novel-length. So I'm somewhat discouraged that I'm behind where I wanted to be by now.
JLB: Your last two novels, A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep were extremely popular. Do you have any plans to revisit this universe?
VV: I have about 90,000 words written on an "incorporating sequel." I don't know what the right word for this is. It's not an expansion. It's where you have a novella, and it becomes a part of the novel. This is an incorporating sequel of a novella I wrote called "The Blabber." And "The Blabber" itself is a sequel to the two novels you just mentioned.
That's not the next project that I expect to be published, though. The next novel that I'm working on is actually a prequel to my novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High."
JLB: How has your mathematician background influenced your writing?
VV: The mathematics background has certainly made it easier to do certain sorts of numerical thinking about my stories. More generally, my science background makes if fairly easy for me to track technical stuff. Over the years, I think it's been one of the strengths I've brought to my writing. I think that for anybody who wants to get into writing, there are some things they have a weak background in, but there are almost aways some things in which they're relatively strong.
For instance, somebody who has worked for a time in the Alaskan fisheries -- I'll use that as an example. That's something that could be used to good effect in any fiction writing. My strengths were in science and technology. Also, I was quite familiar with science fiction, which is a real strength if you're going to write science fiction! My weaknesses were in my understanding of writing, characterization, literature, etc.
So, I tried to capitalize on those strengths. From there, over a period of years, I have tried to improve my ability in the weak areas.
Copyright © 2003 Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Jayme Blaschke, a graduate of Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism, resides in Bastrop, Texas. His work has appeared in such markets as Interzone, The Ant-Men of Tibet and Other Stories and Writers of the Future. An interview collection, Cosmosis: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press.