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Vernor Vinge: Surviving in Extremistan
posted 28 December 2008
Vernor Vinge was born in Waukesha Wisconsin, and received a BS degree from Michigan State University and a master's and PhD in mathematics at the University of California, San Diego. He taught math and computer science at San Diego State University until 2000, when he retired to become a full-time writer.

Vinge's first story, "Apartness", appeared in New Worlds in 1965. 1968 novella "Grimm's Story" formed part of first novel Grimm's World (1969; expanded as Tatja Grimm's World, 1987). Second novel The Witling appeared in 1976. Nebula and Hugo nominee "True Names" (1981) was followed by novels The Peace War (1984) and Marooned in Realtime (1986), both Hugo finalists. A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) won the Hugo Award, as did prequel A Deepness in the Sky (1999), which also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Vinge also won Hugo Awards for novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (2001), novella "The Cookie Monster" (2003), and for his latest novel Rainbows End (2006).

Vinge's 1993 paper "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" was hugely influential among SF writers, many of whom have taken his ideas as a jumping-off point for their own Singularity and post-Singularity fiction.
Photo by Liza Groen Trombi


Excerpts from the interview:

“It's not surprising that near-future novels are much harder to write than far-future ones. There's the obvious problem about having actual events eat your lunch. In my case, since it took so long to write Rainbows End (about five years), not only was there the usual risk that the story would look silly by the time it went out of print, I was also threatened by the possibility that events would make the story silly before I even turned it in!

“That was a very real problem, and there was backing and filling as I wrote, just to stay ahead of what I was reading in the daily news. I had to change some of the emphasis with the library digitization. I retroactively used the standard techniques of 'future-proofing' -- those clever methods science fiction writers have devised to protect against actual events undercutting the story.

“For instance, there's a discussion where the characters talk about the digitization. Somebody says, 'I thought people already did this,' and somebody else explains what the differences are and why it's still a significant issue. I didn't want to do away with the image of shredding books, which has a nightmare resonation for librarians since one of their chief problems is finding the floor space for books. Certainly no real librarian is suggesting what I did with shredder digitization, but the scheme actually has some interesting characteristics. For instance, it does solve one intellectual property issue because afterwards you still have only one copy!

“I'd already been working on the book for some time when I heard of Google's digitization project. I think they are still far short of completion, for reasons of the resources needed, the resources being brought to bear, and (perhaps more importantly) the legal barriers. (Heh. As I'm proofing the Locus interview transcript in November 2008, the Google and Authors Guild agreement is big news. The consequences of that agreement should be momentous, but I suspect there are gotchas and glitches for all concerned, including for the analysis below. Future-proofing is hard to do!)

Rainbows End takes place around 2025, so it's very reasonable that the entire pre-2000 corpus will be digitized and accessible by then. Even now in 2008.... I did a routine, vanilla-flavored Google search the other day for a mathematical term and got dropped right into a page in the full text of a digitized math book. As can happen with math, the reference was relevant but from so long ago that it was past copyright and fully displayable. This gave me a little frisson of future shock.”


"On a minor, wish-fulfillment note (but something that might be done before all the IP issues are resolved): It would be cool to have a service like Google where you could access digital versions of books you physically own, so even if they're in copyright, you could still search them. My personal library is not well organized and part of it's in boxes, but Google may have all of my collection variously digitized. So let me just tell you what the titles are, Mr. Search Engine, and then let me go and freely study those books online -- and not have to dig through the mess in my garage!”


“I don't have any near-future books on the horizon, though Rainbows End certainly cries out for a sequel. I hope eventually to do one. But waiting ten years for that sequel might actually be a good idea, since it would give me more time to ponder things. Rainbows End is itself an entirely straightforward extrapolation of a number of trends that are still going like gangbusters.”


“I'm working on a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, one that takes place on the Tines' world about ten years after AFUD ends. There are many of the same characters, though some of the refugee children are now adults. The super hyper bad guys are still way out in space, rushing as fast as they can rush (in their sublight way) to reach the Tines' world. And then there are the Tines, which for me (and I think for most readers) were the most attractive part of AFUD. (Though I've run into some readers who preferred the Zones stuff, in terms of emotional attraction and novelty, the Tines are the winners.) The nature of Tinish collective intelligence interacts with practically every idiom and cliché. Things like 'I'm a little bit hungry' or 'Why don't you let your conscience go for a walk?' all take on new meaning. Of course, this can also be a problem. I think Samuel R. Delany has pointed out that literalized metaphors put a constraint on science fiction that is not so common in other forms. We science-fiction writers also want to use, and have to use, 'real' metaphors, so we have to write in such a way that the reader can distinguish whether we're using a phrase in the conventional way or if its literalization is what's intended.”


“Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan was a runaway bestseller in the mainstream non-fiction market partly because Taleb had made good money on the financial markets. At the same time the book is so cool and important it's almost a good-citizenship thing to take a look at it. To me, Taleb's argument comes down to issues about assessing surprise. In simplified terms, his epistemology divides nature into "Extremistan" and "Mediocristan". In Mediocristan there are all sorts of cool classical statistics you can successfully use. In Extremistan unboundedly deadly surprises are possible (and unboundedly good ones, too); your cute little Gaussian distributions are crap and what happens is outside the range of your carefully gathered statistics. The more artifice and intelligence is at play, the deeper you are into Extremistan.”

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