Volume 17, Number 04, Fall 1999

Prometheus Interviews Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge has been writing science fiction since the 1960s. Most of his work has been novel length, including the Hugo-winning A Fire upon the Deep (1992) and its prequel A Deepness in the Sky (1999), reviewed in the Winter 1999 Prometheus. His novella True Names (1981) was one of the first works in the cyberpunk idiom. Prometheus interviewed him on November 26, 1999, in his office at San Diego State University, where he is a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics.

Prometheus I'm going to start out with a fairly obvious question I'm sure will interest many people: are you working on any further projects in the world of A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky?

Vinge With the semester under way the answer is no. I think about these in background mode but I don't have the time to spend on them. One noteworthy thing in that connection, though, is I do intend to take early retirement next summer. So hopefully after that I'll have more time to be working on things and I hope to have some contracts with Tor.

Prometheus Are you finding that you have a lot of things you want to say further in that universe, or are we looking at moving on to other settings?

Vinge Actually there's a lot more things I could say in that universe. However, I would also like to do things in other settings. I'm currently in a state of vacillation about whether the next thing should be in the Zones universe or whether it should be in some other sort of future. And, if it is in the Zones universe, there are at least five obvious different things that ought to be next on the list to do, and I've actually been collecting market research on that and collecting advice from my publisher. I think they would like to see the next one follow up on Pham's experience at the end of A Deepness in the Sky, but there are a lot of workable things I could follow up on.

Prometheus I've been seeing favorable reactions to A Deepness in the Sky from the people I know who've read it, and of course I've seen a huge amount of online discussion of it. I was curious what you've been seeing in terms of reception. Is it getting as favorable a reaction as you had hoped?

Vinge Yes. Especially with a book that is that long—I've come to the conclusion I don't want to write books that are that long. If they're extremely successful, the fact that they are that long helps and it doesn't matter that one took several years of one's life, but it's just as likely that a long book is not going to be successful as a short book, and I would much rather pursue a less risky policy of writing things of about 100,000 words. That's something I can write fairly quickly and if I experiment and the experiment doesn't work out it's a loss I can write off. If this thing had had seriously poor reception that would have been relatively greater unhappiness for me than for something shorter.

Prometheus But I gather it's been doing quite well.

Vinge Ah, yes. I have not been lurking to the extent that I did several years ago because I don't have the time, but from what I can tell it's doing well and from the statements from the publisher it seems to me that it's doing well. The paperback should be out about the beginning of the new year.

Prometheus One thing I particularly noticed in the online discussion was it seemed to be debated whether A Deepness in the Sky could be viewed as having any libertarian content—

Vinge [laughs]

Prometheus —which of course is of interest to our readers. Do you see it as having libertarian content?

Vinge Yes. In some cases libertarian content, of course, is dystopic. There's that little speech that Trud Silipan gives about how people who buy and sell are the lowliest forms of life in any society; he goes on and on for about a page in that vein. That has libertarian content in a dark and contrarian way, and certainly the society he was part of was based on the antithesis of everything that is libertarian. On the other hand, the Qeng Ho, in the same spirit, I think, as the Polesotechnic League, are certainly in the libertarian tradition, and their interactions with other societies that were not so libertarian—to me it's that sort of interaction that provides insights about how things work or how things might work. The aliens in A Deepness in the Sky were strange. There was libertarian content there but—it may be novel— they did not have what we would call— what do they call the previous system of government in Great Britain, a limited monarchy?

Prometheus I think that's what it's usually called, or constitutional monarchy.

Vinge Constitutional monarchy. This king apparently was a good deal less powerful, basically because his government had very little in the way of taxing powers. And so in fact the alien civilization had features to it that were both monarchist and libertarian, which actually is not that novel, I guess; there are some writers who claim to consistently write stories that are monarchist and libertarian. I don't claim that, but for instance, it was even very hard for them to fight wars because they couldn't raise taxes for wars unless they could get a resounding plebiscite passed.

Prometheus Of course if you look at real European history the taxing power of monarchies, even absolute monarchies, was strikingly limited until the French Revolution made everything ruthlessly efficient.

Vinge Yes, and made possible the mass delivery of death.

Prometheus I thought one reason A Deepness in the Sky was not seen as libertarian was that it did not seem to be a utopian libertarian work. It seemed to be a pessimistic libertarian work and I think that might be less familiar to people now.

Vinge The universe as a whole, given that it was in the Slow Zone, was pessimistic. One of the chief characters, Pham Nguyen, felt it was pessimistic, because his head kept hitting against the ceiling of the limitations. I think it's about as good as things could get if hardware progress levels off.

Prometheus You seemed to assume a fair degree of pessimism, at least in the Slow Zone, and I wondered to what degree you see that pessimism as realistic and to what degree is it a narrative device to make it easier to tell stories?

Vinge To me there's one great imponderable, and that is whether hardware improvement continues and whether we actually will achieve superhuman intelligence. If we don't, and hardware progress levels off, then it seems to me very plausible that steady-state utopias, where there is no place to move away to, may be hard to sustain. I don't mean more hard to sustain than a tyranny—a tyranny's hard to sustain too—but that the sort of thing that I would like to see, I think, is, say we were stuck on the Earth, with what we now imagine a Jetsons level of technology would be. I think if we played our cards right we could get a very nice situation. I wonder whether it could go on indefinitely.

In other words, there would be occasional bumps and crashes; for one thing, the rest of the universe could conspire against us. And coming back from a crash, I think we could come back quite fast, as long as the race was not rendered extinct.

Along the way there would be some hard times. And in A Deepness in the Sky there is the constant notion that there is some up and down to this. It was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that there was occasional interstellar communication. So I guess actually if we get stuck technologically I am relatively pessimistic. I would still regard that as far as possible a libertarian scheme would be the most likely to produce a pleasant and stable long term.

Prometheus But of course the trick is whether we could get to what would be most desirable.

Vinge Right

Prometheus One thing I was interested in in A Deepness in the Sky was you portrayed the one society going into collapse. Of course it was possible for a society to collapse in an obvious way, falling into tyranny, but there were hints that a society could collapse through what looked like computational catastrophes of some sort.

Vinge Yes, the Nam Chem scenario. Backing up one question you asked about narrative device; obviously there's also a narrative device involved here. At some point in the story I needed to illustrate to the reader what it would look like if you had a bunch of reasonable people and a large civilization—they've had thousands of years to study societies at our technological level and better, they have high levels of education, they have hundreds of millions of people who really know that free trade works and can appreciate having their self-interest arranged with regard to that.

How could things go wrong? Well, one way things could go wrong would be a big physical catastrophe. Another would be an invasion. So in this part of the story neither of those happened. In fact, what they were doing was they were constantly optimizing. The idea of optimizing is that you are making better and more efficient use of your resources, just-in-time inventories and stuff like that. Now they are smart enough to know the dangers of that, that you can get to the point where even if your automation is pretty good a small breakdown can cause you all sorts of trouble.

But, at the same time, they are confronted with other sorts of problems. There is sort of a creeping ossification. You would know the guy's name—he's from the University of Chicago, an economist, but he's Norwegian or Swedish—he had the notion that if you really had freedom that special interest groups would gradually use that freedom to create guild-type special rules for special people. I think in my Nam Chen situation there was some of that going on; there was also the optimization stuff going on, and they were just getting very close to the limits of their flexibility. They were not running out of resources in any long-term sense, but they were pushing the envelope deliberately to make things better and better and better and hoping they could work their way out of it. At the same time they were probably suffering ossification, so when things fell apart they fell apart in a way that was almost predictable.

I think it's an interesting question whether you can get in a disaster if you have a majority of people who understand the sociology. The thesis in that part of the story was that that could happen, and there were at least partial disasters, and there was a chance of a major disaster if the Qeng Ho hadn't showed up with its outside help.

Prometheus And even then, as I recall, the Qeng Ho were not able completely to—

Vinge Yeah, there was some question whether it was like the claims about the Patriot missiles in the Iraq War or the claims about winning in Kosovo. There were some claims afterward that it wouldn't have been that much worse if the Qeng Ho hadn't arrived. That they were able to sort of make all sorts of noise and organize things and make it look like something was being done. I'm willing to give Pham some credit. It's quite plausible that he saved a few billion lives there and brought them back to some good level fairly soon. The only trouble is if he did it perfectly, you know, like it never happened, that just means they're on track for whatever disaster they were close to! That is a very discouraging conclusion. I don't know whether it is true. I have that inclination, if we get levelled off with technology, I don't know whether it's true, I certainly pray that it is not, but it was also a narrative tool in the story.

Prometheus You've talked several times about trying to avoid the Singularity, that is the state where technological progress so transforms human beings that we can't tell meaningful stories about them any more.

Vinge Right. The crux of my version of the Singularity is that either we or something we make is a good deal smarter than we are and that gives you the unknowability. So in A Deepness in the Sky I basically assume that it takes place in the part of the universe that I call the Slow Zone where it's impossible to make superhuman critters, and existing superhuman critters if they were to go there would either die or have to suspend operations or become dumber. And that's a spoiler because the characters don't know that, and neither would a reader who hasn't read A Fire upon the Deep.

Prometheus But of course you have the discussion of the failed dreams, which points right out of the Slow Zone, if the reader has read A Fire upon the Deep.

Vinge Absolutely. And in a way it points backwards, too, to our time, because we are coming up on that cusp, is the Singularity going to happen or is it not? Well, if it doesn't happen, very likely, in 70 years or so, all these hotshot things that various technophiles are talking about now would be looked back upon as failed dreams.

And maybe space travel would gradually get a little bit better and a little bit better. In my story I assume that after a thousand years or so it gets fairly good. I mean they can get up to a significant fraction of the speed of light.

Prometheus Now, one more thing set in that universe. I was interested in your choice of what looked like a Chinese- and Southeast Asian-descended mercantile culture as the apparent basis of the Qeng Ho. I was wondering how you came to pick that particular assumption.

Vinge First of all, I was taking advantage of something that I think has often been true in migrations of critters on earth. You get sort of a keyhole effect where you may have a large population and either because the pioneers are only a small subset or because there's a mass extinction you get a keyhole which only a very small variety of genotypes get through. And on the other side of that keyhole you get redevelopment and new species and stuff like that. And apparently in this part of the spaces that humanity had colonized the keyhole was some sort of Southeast Asian keyhole.

The other thing is, the main action happens around 8000 years from now. In some ways, 8000 years from now, in the vision of this story, there's more opportunity for cultural change and language change than in the last 8000 years. In other ways it's less because they have such good records. They could put together somebody who could speak California English if they wanted to, just because they have such good records. But on the other hand, because they've been spreading out into space and have actually started hundreds of separate historical timelines, in a way, I am faking it to make the names and stuff sound so relatively plausible. Turning it around, what recognizable names are there in our era from 8000 years ago? I'm sure there are some; I'm not sure anybody knows which they are. Obviously, names in the future may progress more stably because of record keeping. But, in a way, it could either be argued as naive on my part or faking on my part or some other reason which I'll get to in a second, to have these names that are even so moderately recognizable. I could imagine somebody writing a story 200 years from now where you could say, oh, we have this clear cultural lineage.

Eight thousand years ago you may have had some sort of cultural lineage and this keyhole and then you had thousands of years on several dozens of planets, and so it is extremely presumptuous of me to claim that there are these particular culures. So what are my possibilities? Either I was naive, or I was faking it, thinking the reader was naive, maybe, or the third possibility is that it's really the argument that Ezr Vinh supplied to Ann Reynolt when she bitched about the quality of the translation she was getting from the Spiders, that there is an attempt being made to provide a translation into English of what is going on that gives some cultural standards to relate to. So if a person argues that way then their names might not really be the names you saw in the book. But the cultural matrix I hope came across as being relatively like some of the things that we associate with these aspects of Southeast Asia. I first ran across that approach in Tolkien, in the appendices there, and it really annoyed me and it still sort of annoys me. "You mean that's not their real names?" I think it's their real names but maybe I modified them a little bit.

Prometheus Actually, you did do that also with the Spiders—

Vinge Oh, for sure with the Spiders!

Prometheus —and I remember being struck that it was rather elegant that on the one hand you had produced these rather Hal Clement-like, human-seeming aliens, and on the other hand you provided this neat in-story rationale for why they were so humanized.

Vinge I tried to be pretty explicit about that. In fact in the end you find that all the Spider parts were written by one of the human characters. But on a higher level the same argument to some extent must apply to the humans. And actually that illustrates one point I had in the story is the humans have a far more alien culture than the Spiders do, to the late 20th century.

Prometheus It strikes me that having libertarian themes running through this story isn't in any way a departure for you. I remember that as early as your Analog story from the 1960s with the curious group of anarchists who filed antitrust suits against large organizations. That motif goes a long way back. It sounds as if you've at least been sympathetic toward and interested in libertarianism for quite a long time, and I wonder if you could give us any history on that.

Vinge My childhood and growing up was in liberal academic circles for the fifties and the sixties, and I bought into that pretty substantially. Although there were some things I was told that were just so on the face of it self contradictory that they bothered me, "some day I'll have to look at this carefully," you know, like enforced membership in unions. I would say by the time I wrote "Conquest by Default," which was the one where I tried to have an anarchy, the stabilizing thing was there were umpires and that was magic. I mean, my only excuse is that they were aliens and so maybe you could get a religion of umpires that somehow would work and they solved the problem of agglomeration of powers; essentially if something got too powerful everybody else just broke it up. So there were some fantastical assumptions there.

I've always been trying to think about these issues, and that story shows it, but it really wasn't until around the 1980's that I was exposed to libertarians, and they also were articulate libertarians, although I've discovered that there was such a high coincidence of those two traits that I don't necessarily have to say that, but that then pointed me at certain readings and that also were willing to talk about the issues. And it was very strange. I don't think it's this unusual for this to happen but it was the first time it had ever happened to me.

All of a sudden all sorts of things could be explained, all sorts of things that had bothered me about inconsistencies I now had a way of looking at, and so there was a period of about six months, maybe the only time in my life when I've really been so taken by an idea that it preoccupied me all the time, and one of the keystones of that was David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. That book certainly illustrates that you can get a coherent model of what you're talking about and a lot of things make sense.

So from then on I think my intellectual development with regard to libertarianism was fairly normal. I haven't had any big changes since then. I do have the feeling that libertarianism and anarchocapitalism is much more likely to be workable in a peaceful environment Anarchocapitalism or libertarianism in an extremely chaotic or violent environment is less plausible to me.

I also think that having high technology and a base level of wealth that means that people aren't at the edge of death every day also makes libertarianism and anarchocapitalism much more feasible.

For instance, "The Ungoverned," I wanted to write a story that had action, but I also had this notion that in a working situation the anarchocapitalist vision would be quite sedate; by 'sedate' 1 mean the people aren't going around blowing things up and shooting people. It's actually much more peaceful than our era. The way I did this was by having this anarchocapitalist civilization, not a country but this area, the ungovemed lands, they got invaded by a nationstate. This enabled me to have all kinds of shoot-em-up, but at the same time the running theme that before they got into this mess it was really a very cool and peaceful place.

Prometheus So you are not envisioning the classic negative vision of anarchism which is sort of hinted at in "Conquest by Default," where there's a high level of gunfire and a high level of violent quarrels.

Vinge First of all, I regard the mechanism for anarchic stability there as implausible, and I did at the time too.

But it is also true that there were relatively high levels of violence. However, there was a technological level there that was sufficient that people were not desperate for the things they needed to keep alive; the violence was in fact sort of a cultural feature of the aliens. In fact that story was inspired, as a lot of things were in my mind, by stuff that went on in Astounding Science Fiction. I remember John Campbell had a story once where the aliens arrived and he essentially had it be like when the Europeans arrived in Central America and blew away the local culture because they had the technological superiority to do it.

Given our 20th century flexibility, quote tolerance unquote, 1 wanted to have aliens that were technologically superior to us and had a culture that was really offensive but without being a dictatorship. In other words, how do you offend a 20th century liberal? And these guys could do it. They had no perversions. I wanted to find something that could offend someone who had been exposed to the "we can tolerate anything" sort of attitude. I think actually each new generation tries to do this, too. If we ever achieve a state of great tolerance I think one of the goals of our children will be to find something that we can't tolerate.

Prometheus Unfortunately they might choose to do it through acquiring the trait of intolerance itself.

Vinge In fact, that's sort of the dark thing about this. I think there's a natural deal about children, especially if they can't move far away to other planets. There has to be a rebellion. Well, what if the parents really are tolerant? Well, then the children will just have to work harder and be more creative about how to be offensive.

Prometheus The adolescent "I've got to be so unpleasant that my parents will throw me out" sort of behavior. Of course, I suspect that our society makes it a little too hard for adolescents to get thrown out because there really isn't any place for them to go once they're out.

Vinge One of my biggest disappointments, considering how nice so many technical things are going, is that space travel has not been—space travel is progressing at a remarkably fast 19th century sort of rate. That rate does get results. At that rate by 2070 or 2100 there probably would be a colony on Mars. I would sure like it to go faster than that.

Prometheus Another thing that I have noticed in your fiction over the years, and in other science fiction writers, and for that matter in libertarians—a surprising percentage of libertarians have a military background and in your fiction and that of some other writers I see a curious presence of libertarian themes coexisting with military characters, characters who hold military values, and particularly sometimes characters who hold the values of the military intelligence community. I wondered to what degree you see those two worldviews as symbiotic and to what degree you see them as opposed or at odds.

Vinge I'd have to think carefully to get exactly the right words on this. First of all, there is a type of segue where a person goes from individual responsibility into authoritarianism. That can be quite unhealthful. There also is— this is especially big in Europe and the U.S. before World War I—the notion that somehow war was hygienic. I actually ran across a book that was proclaiming that. "It's not that dangerous; it's sort of a rite of passage for young people and it instills these great values." This is right before World War I and to me this is a virulently evil line of reasoning. But the good moral features, being alert, helping other people out, being imaginative, being hard working, being courageous, those are things that are espoused in the bright side of looking at military things, and those things by themselves I think are great.

In fact, it's very interesting to me; we've had all this low level violence in the United States of people who run amok and every so often you have it happen in an environment where you have people who actually—part of their business is that occasionally they are in situations where they have to deal with that.

For instance, at Fort Benning, about four years ago, there was a sniper. He started shooting soldiers who were running around in their underwear before dawn. He actually killed some people. And these guys didn't have any guns, and he was hidden in the woods. And they just ran off into the woods and grabbed him.

Not quite that long ago there was a case where a guy burst into a meeting of ten guys sitting around a table. And this guy who burst in had two guns. And one of the older guys at the table stood up and told him to put the guns down and the intruder killed him. This fellow had made one very serious error; it turned that he had burst in on a room full of police officers, who were not armed—you know, they were just talking—and so he was disarmed within a few seconds.

So this notion of people who aren't sheep—and I'm certainly not putting myself aside from the sheep; I suspect in any emergency I'd be among the more sheeplike—but people who aren't sheep, people who don't just hunker down and hope that they don't get noticed when something evil and very violent and deadly happens by, people like that, I think, are very important. If that were more the attitude we had that you respond aggressively to real violent threats, that you don't just hope they'll get the other guy and not you, I think that is probably good. And that has been the characteristic of the military men that I personally know and that I think are good people. It's also sort of bally-hooed and spread around every sort of aggressive activity that's ever undertaken by groups of armed men. I think that I'd have to try to distinguish here, but what you're seeing and what you've seen in other libertarian writers, I think there is a reason for it, easily conflated with other things that aren't so nice, but there's still a good reason for it.

Prometheus I think for example that I've seen that in writers such as Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson. And I wanted to ask you about Poul Anderson specifically because you mentioned him in the opening pages—

Vinge Actually, I dedicated the book to him.

Prometheus Do you see him as one of the major influences on your writing?

Vinge Yes, definitely, Poul has been a great influence on my writing. I wish I had a copy of the book here because I have a paragraph there in the dedication where I lay out clearly the sorts of ways that he influenced me. He has written so much good stuff, so much very imaginative stuff. And then also he was one of the very first science fiction writers that I ever met. I think the first science fiction convention I ever went to was when I was in graduate school; it was the Worldcon in San Francisco. I actually met and talked with John W. Campbell, not nearly long enough, but that was a wonderful experience.

Actually, I think I probably met Poul Anderson, but he was also down here a couple of times, he visited Gary Edmondson and Harry Harrison, and I had more of a chance to talk to him, and he had parties for the Nebula Awards up at his place, and in those personal encounters he and his wife both treated me so nice—that's a separate issue, it's just wonderful that Poul's writing that I like so much was also associated with somebody who was such a neat person.

Poul Anderson was one of the people I looked at in terms of trying to analyze sentence and paragraph structure. Trying to figure out whether there was something he was doing that I could see well enough to help. There was a time when I wondered how long a paragraph was supposed to be, and things like that.

Prometheus I remember his one short nonfiction passage where he recommended appealing to three senses in each paragraph.

Vinge Yes! I don't think I've ever repeated that publicly in print, but I know in talking with people about writing I've often come out with that one. It's obviously a rule to be broken, but it's obviously a nice yardstick. You look at a paragraph, and then you ask yourself, does it deserve to exist, and that's one of the most important criteria.

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