Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting one of my literary heroes, the author and futurist Vernor Vinge. He'd just published Children of the Sky, his long-awaited sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, and we had a chance to talk about that book as well as some of the other novels in his Zones of Thought series.
Vinge is also famous for his groundbreaking 1993 essay on the idea of the "Singularity," called "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era." While my flip cam was on, I asked him three burning questions I'd always had about the singularity, and he was kind enough to answer. (You can see that video here, with random ComicCon attendees walking by in the background.)
Here's what else we talked about.
io9: In Children of the Sky, you've returned to the Tines' World. Why did you want to go back there?
Vernor Vinge: I had been intending to do what you could call a classic sequel. In the past, I'd done [the sequel] Marooned in Realtime, but it was set millions of years [after the first book, The Peace War]. Children of the Sky is set 10 years later and I wanted to see what it was like to do that. Fire Upon the Deep is also one my most popular books.
Some authors try to fit all their stuff into the same universe – I'm not going to do that. But my novel The Witling is set right at the border between Zones, where humans are using slower-than-light travel. One could claim that Witling is a Zones of Thought book. With very little distortion I could retcon it.
io9: In Fire Upon the Deep, you have an enormous cast of diverse aliens. In Children of the Sky, there are only the Tines. What was it like to limit yourself to just the one alien group?
VV: To try to get enough out of that to have a story was a challenge. There are two big things in this story that generate cool ideas. First, there's more to say about the Tines, and they're easy to write about. All sorts of clichés are suddenly charming and novel – like "I think I may be a little bit pregnant," or "I'm of two minds." Those concepts are new and fun. The Tines [who have collective consciousness] give us a way of looking at self-awareness and mortality that's important and interesting.
The second thing is that there have been stories in past with many levels of technology in them - we see a type of future civilization that's understandable to us, visiting a world of Medieval people. Then there's someone with even higher technology that's hovering in the background. One could claim that Avatar is like that. It's a classic comeback where humans arrive from Earth to kick ass and they get their asses kicked without any doubt or uncertainty about who is holding the upper hand.
In Children of the Sky, the eponymous title characters are from a higher civilization - they would probably agree with the title. They'd prefer "children of heaven" probably. I was overreaching myself here – these are people at the edge of a Singularity and beyond. [Protagonist] Ravna's scheme for uplifting locals was a lot of fun for me to do because ever since Mark Twain, uplift stories have been part of science fiction. He was ahead of his time with Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It wasn't until the 1950s that people did that well again.
So it was interesting to think about this idea. If you have technical manuals, that could speed uplift. Or if you know what's possible. Ravna is a step beyond that. She has library, and it's not just tech manual. It's thousands of years of hobbyists studying the uplift problem, trying to figure out how to do it if you want to go from a Medieval level of technology to spaceflight. This issue commonly comes up in civilizational collapse situations. These characters have a lot of experience with that, because collapse happens a lot in the Slow Zone.
In their studies of how to recover after collapse, they have programs that do decision trees. They're technological societies, so they want to optimize. They realize there's whole big chunks of stuff that you don't have to do to get from Elizabethan England to a high tech civilization.
Ravna wants to develop interplanetary flight and is skipping whole chapters of technological history. She's actually using her spaceship as the MAC layer for the 1980s phones she gives to the Tines. Which creates a single point of failure. All that stuff is interesting to think about.
io9: Can you explain the Zones of Thought?
VV: The Zones series turns the Singularity into something spacial rather than temporal. Each Zone is a different stage. In some ways, Fermi's Paradox is the space-like analog of the Singularity. We don't know what the century holds for us, let alone space.
io9: Is the Blight, the bad guy from Fire Upon the Deep, the bad Singularity?
VV: You could say the Blight was a bad Singularity. Or that the humans got taken advantage of – a bad thing happened a long time ago, and they got caught up in it. The active evil was already there.
In the [Zone called the] Transcend, there's more variety than what we think of when it comes to empires. There are beings who are like plants if you can imagine superintelligent plants. But then you have to consider the conversation with the superhuman inteliigence in Fire Upon the Deep. It says to the humans [who are struggling with the Blight], "Yes, I could help you out. On the other hand, here's my standpoint – I'm like a homeowner and next door there's a guy who's poisoning the plants. He says to fuck off. And I am not willing to get into a shooting match with him – so you humans, I'm sorry, you have to put up with this fellow."
Basically the Blight is not a high performance superbeing. It's one of the few guys that tries to make a living at boundary between the Transcend and the rest of the Zones. Really, it's a bottom feeder. But it has a bad effect on everybody – people in the Beyond too. It was totally destroyed billions of years ago and now it's making a comeback.
Ultimately, this isn't about the real Singularity. The Zones are essentially based on a magical assmption. I think in reality we're all in the Slow Zone.
io9: Do you think your work is getting more character driven?
VV: The advice to new writers is that you play from your strengths when you start. My strength is that I'm interested in technical things. I have a technology background and there is a market for that in scifi. My greatest weakness was the character issues. So I have gotten better at it over the years. [Science fiction writer John] Campbell once said that the tragedy is that young writers have great ideas but can't write, but older writers can write but they have no ideas. I hope that isn't happening to me.
io9: It's been 20 years ago since you wrote your classic essay on the Singularity. Do you imagine the Singularity differently than you did in the 1990s?
VV: I think we're headed for world where physical reality has the same volatility as financial markets. But this could help people live together. Because of economics, for example, we are willing to trust people thousands of miles away. They don't have to be related to us. To me, this is a trademark of advanced life going forward from this point. A step beyond that is that we don't even have to be in the same species to form bonds of friendship. For a critter at the top of the food chain, we're actually pretty nice.
io9: What are you working on next?
VV: I'm trying to decide between a near future or far future novel. I'm also trying to figure out how to write something a little shorter.