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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Vernor Vinge Part 2
    by Darrell Schweitzer

The starting point for this interview is an article called "The Coming Technological Singularity" which you may quickly find by doing an internet search on Vernor Vinge's name. It was presented at the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993. A slightly changed version appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Whole Earth Review. Otherwise, what you need to know by way of an introduction is that Vernor Vinge has been publishing science fiction since 1965. One early story of his, "The Accomplice" (1967) is remarkably prophetic. Not only does it describe desktop computers and CGI animation, but suggests that this could be used to make a movie out of The Lord of the Rings. His "True Names" (1981) is one of the first stories about cyberspace, hackers, and virtual reality. He has won Hugo Awards for A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (2002), "The Cookie Monster" (2004) and Rainbows End (2006). Marooned in Realtime (1996) won the Prometheus Award.

He is a retired professor of mathematics from San Diego State University. At the beginning of the Wikipedia entry about him, he is quoted from the Singularity article as saying, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

(Part One of this interview appeared in issue 15)

Part Two

VINGE: When I was a child, the thing that first attracted me to science fiction -- before I had access to sf magazines or even had a name for the genre -- was that occasionally I would read a story or see a movie where the world was different at the end than it was at the beginning. Being just seven or eight years old, I didn't have very wide horizons, but in the early 1950s it was very rare that I could find a story in which the world was different at the end of the story, unless it turned out to be a dream and at the end the protagonist wakes up and everything is as before. (I really disliked that kind of story!)

Then someone, probably one of my parents, pointed out, "You know, there's a name for what you're looking for. It's called science fiction."

SCHWEITZER: Even then, particularly in the movies, there was a lot of science fiction which put the world back in order at the end. Consider Odd John, for example. In most of the early superman stories, the superman has to die at the end. I suppose the most extreme example is C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, where they fly to Mars and at the end decide never to do that again. It was even a change in science fiction that writers started to leave the world in a different condition at the end.

VINGE: I hadn't realized that! Of course, the perspective of my autobiographical example is of a six or seven or eight year old. I wasn't aware that there were stories that were open about the future and also sf stories that closed themselves off. In some cases, there are defensible artistic reasons such closing. I really loved "Flowers for Algernon," and I don't think its ending is dictated by the sort of societal expectations of the much earlier stories.

SCHWEITZER: Well it certainly closed things off for the individuals in the story. Certainly for the mouse.

VINGE: [Laughs.]

SCHWEITZER: So, when did you first realize that you wanted to write science fiction, and what did you do about it?

VINGE: My childhood memories are weak on dates, but I've been told that the first book I ever read was Heinlein's Between Planets, when I was in the second grade. I think my parents were getting worried about me: was this kid ever going to learn to read? On the other hand, the first story I ever tried to write was "Rocketship X-54." What year do you think that was written in?

SCHWEITZER: About the same time Rocketship X-M came out, which would make it about 1949.

VINGE: I think it was probably in the third grade, so 1951 or 1952.

SCHWEITZER: Then the movie was a couple years old when you saw it.

VINGE: I doubt that I actually saw the movie back then; my parents didn't even let me go The War of the Worlds. I think my title may have come from my fascination with the early X-planes, and the year "1954," which probably sounded almost as wondrously futuristic to me as "1955."

SCHWEITZER: Rocketship X-M was a knockoff of Destination Moon, which the producers got into theaters first.

VINGE: Alas, I didn't even see Destination Moon until many years later. My intent with the Rocketship X-54 was to tell the story of the first human expedition to the moon. The twist was to be that the explorers run into Venusian explorers there. I didn't finish that story. In fact, I was never able to finish any of my science-fiction until about the tenth grade -- and that story took a year or two to complete. I realized later that it was very similar to John Campbell's "Forgetfulness." I'm so glad I never sent it to him. The similarity was not deliberate; I was just immersed in the culture of science fiction.

SCHWEITZER: Maybe if you had submitted that story to John Campbell, he might have been flattered.

VINGE: If I had been John, I would have thought, "Boy, this is really a derivative story. This guy obviously worked very hard on it, but I hope he can come up with more original ideas in the future."

SCHWEITZER: Where did you sell your first story? Was it to Analog?

VINGE: The first sale, which was the second (saleable) story I wrote,
was "Apartness." I sold it to New Worlds when Michael Moorcock was the
editor there. "Apartness" was about the colonization of the Palmer
Peninsula in Antarctica by refugees from South Africa.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I wrote my first story that ever sold, "Bookworm, Run!" That's about Intelligence Amplification applied to a chimpanzee. I sold it to John Campbell at Analog. That was really an ego-trip for me, in some ways bigger than my first sale. John rejected the story with a long letter about what was wrong with the story. Well, I recognized the subtext message to be 'Fix this and try again!' I dutifully revised the story, and I think he rejected it again with another long letter. I still am extraordinarily proud of that interchange and the fact that he eventually bought the story. (Commercial plug: I haven't written that much short fiction. Almost all of it is in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, from Tor Books.)

SCHWEITZER: Were you primarily an Astounding reader all this time, not a Galaxy reader or a Fantasy & Science Fiction reader?

VINGE: Eventually I became very, very enamored with Galaxy and with F&SF, and I had good collections of them, but as a child from circa age 12 to 15, my magazine reading was pretty exclusively Astounding. And of course during that time I was reading Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein, from the library.

SCHWEITZER: One of the interesting things about the canon of that time was that for people who grew up in the '50s or the '60s, what we were reading, at first, was very likely science fiction that was written before we were born, not the contemporary stuff. Kids today don't seem to do that.

VINGE: Well, the stuff I was reading in Astounding was of course contemporary.

SCHWEITZER: But before you got to the magazines, you would have been reading earlier Heinlein, or whatever. I figured this out for myself once. Of the first ten science fiction books I read, only one was first published within my lifetime. That was James Blish's The Seedling Stars, which came out when I was three. (1955).

VINGE: Most of what I was reading was not that old.

SCHWEITZER: I mean the Golden Age Astounding stuff from the early '40s.

VINGE: Yeah, but I was born in '44.

SCHWEITZER: But by the time you were old enough to read, say, Beyond This Horizon --

VINGE: Beyond This Horizon was before I was born, but that was not one of the early Heinleins that I read. The juveniles that he was writing were from the late 1940s and the 1950s. So those were contemporary to me. It is true that I was originally rather casual about reading Astounding. Then I realized that the stories that I really loved, the novels, most of them had come out in Astounding first. So in my case, your observation about pre-birth influence really goes back to about 1939 or 1940. In other words, I did not and essentially never have discovered much really enjoyable science fiction from before about 1940. There are a few stories from 1939 that I enjoyed, and a few stories from earlier that I discovered much later.

SCHWEITZER: Like Campbell's "Forgetfulness." That's from 1937.

VINGE: It may be that I never read that.

SCHWEITZER: You doubtless read it in Adventures in Time and Space.

VINGE: Aha! Talk about forgetfulness! Yes, you must be right. I did have access to that anthology. So, except for the Healy and McComas Adventures in Time and Space -- and there may be a Conklin book --

SCHWEITZER: The Big Book of Science Fiction from 1946, the other major breakthrough anthology.

VINGE: Yes. I stand corrected. I had access to such anthologies and I read them assiduously. That probably didn't predate reading Between Planets but my reading the anthologies certainly came before I discovered the magazines. I remember being in awe of Astounding when I realized how many of my favorite stories had originally appear there. That does nail it down. Even so, I was not impressed by most stories from before 1940. And I didn't run into things like Stapledon's The Star Maker until late in high school. I didn't see some of my now-most-favorite pre-1940 stories until much later, in particular Kipling's A.B.C. stories. I am not aware of seeing those until the late '90s -- and being thoroughly humbled by the discovery. He actually had discovered the Heinlein "door dilated" principle and exploited it to the hilt, and this was when, 1907?

SCHWEITZER: I was born in 1952, which makes me eight years younger than you, so if I was reading the same things you were, things like Heinlein's "Universe" and The Martian Chronicles, which all predated my lifetime.

VINGE: We've all heard that "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is thirteen." I have my own explanation for this factoid. Up to circa age thirteen we can read great, easy-to-find stories as fast as we can read. So, in the first thirteen years of life, we each exhaust that corpus. After that point, we can only read great sf as fast as it can be written (or mined from more difficult strata). So this drastic decline in perceived quality is only partly because of our increasing maturity as readers. Perhaps this is similar to what you are saying, that you noticed that when you were young you were influenced by things from some years earlier. You were reading great science fiction as fast as you could lay your hands on it. Well, it's only written at a certain rate, so the chance that the great stuff was created close to when you are currently reading is small.

SCHWEITZER: Consider someone born in 1990. They are 19 years old now. They have a substantially larger body of science fiction to work off of. I can't think they could read it all by the time they're 13. If you hold that great science fiction started with Campbell's Golden Age in 1939, then, yes, maybe around 1950 you could master it all by the time you were 13. I don't think this is true anymore.

VINGE: Have you talked to sf fans born circa 1990? Was the stuff that informed their science-fictional life published in the ten or fifteen years before they were born?

SCHWEITZER: I did have an interesting conversation with that most exotic of creatures, a twenty-year-old who was an intern for George Scithers for a while. To him, Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny were classic writers. Fritz Leiber, James Blish, and Edgar Pangborn, he had never heard of. Interestingly enough, he found Harlan Ellison badly dated and hard to read. Much of the stuff you and I think of as the classic core of science fiction he had never heard of and never read. I am thinking of an article by Judith Berman, called "Science Fiction Without a Future." She argued that science fiction was losing the ability to appeal to youth, or to anybody but aging Baby Boomers. So, if the old science fiction could appeal to kids, who had not been born when it was written, and modern science fiction cannot, I wonder what has been lost.

VINGE: With regard to the twenty-year-old fan -- that is fascinating and a little discouraging. So there is a steady supply of new sf, and like duckling imprinting, that is what the new readers see and love while the older stuff is cast aside, remembered only by the older birds? As for the possibility of a longterm decline in the genre, I think there is an arc of development across the twentieth century. Did you see the introduction I wrote for the Bison Books reissue of The Skylark of Space?


VINGE: In the essay, I pushed my theory on the change in the quality of science fiction throughout the 20th century. I said some positive things about The Skylark of Space. I also said some negative things. The science fiction that so influenced me when I was young really does have a different value structure than the most popular science fiction of the '70s and '80s and '90s. The quality of writing that a Literature person would call good writing has much more weight in those recent stories than it did in the stories that I grew up on. On the other hand, what the earlier authors were shooting for was entirely different, and in many cases they were among the very first people that were writing about Idea X (whatever). If you're the very first person to write about Idea X, it's like the first guy who makes a fire. It doesn't matter that you don't know about chipping flint to make sparks. If you've made the fire at all, you get a lot of credit and you are blessed. And so it's conceivable that if you show your twenty-year-old friend this stuff that you and I liked so much, he would turn his nose up at it. He might say that it was just boringly written and old ideas, which probably is true. Science fiction tends to date sadly.

SCHWEITZER: I point out that the best of Wells hasn't dated at all. I would argue against this idea. Good writing is good writing, regardless of when it was done. It is a shock to read a literate science fiction story from the 1930s, for example, but go find, say, To Walk the Night by William Sloane. This is a science fiction novel which was good enough not to be published in the pulp magazines, but as a mainstream novel, by a real book publisher. Sloane could actually write. I think that what you were experiencing with The Skylark of Space was that the quality of writing in science fiction went down sharply in the early 20th century and probably bottomed out with Gernsback, so that what we call the Campbell Golden Age is really a period of recovery. Science fiction had at least reached the pulp level again. [Vinge is laughing.] Most of what was in the Gernsback published was sub-pulp. I argue as a critic that we should never excuse bad writing on the grounds that it is old-fashioned. So I think we have to separate out such matters as how literate the writer is -- can he use words well -- or whether he can describe characters that act like human beings from the science fiction content of the story. It's a different matter.

VINGE: Would you give somebody any gold stars for being the first person to write about a particular idea? Does that excuse them in any way for their not being able to write?

SCHWEITZER: I would say no. It just leaves the idea lying around for someone else to pick up. I note that H.G. Wells wrote about a lot of the major ideas first, but he wrote well, and it was decades before anyone else could even approach that level.

VINGE: You may have explained why I never warmed to much of the science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s! Still, I think there is an arc of development to the science fiction of the twentieth century, at least in terms of what a writer could get away with. When a new intellectual area opens, it's like wandering onto a beach littered with precious and semi-precious stones. It doesn't take any work to scoop them up. So, on one hand, at the beginning of such a period, you have a lot of brilliant ideas told by people who can't write very well. Then, late in the period, when the ideas have been picked over and picked over, you begin to get elaboration and really good writing, to the point where the ideas are polished up and they shine. That's great. Then very late in the period, you get into another not-so-attractive phase, where the good writing has also been done, the shining up of the emeralds has been done, and all you are doing is elaborating on the footnotes and putting little curlicues on the writing. In a way, that is a terminal phase that is almost as ugly as the initial careless squandering of gems on the beach.

SCHWEITZER: Wells didn't squander his gems. At the very beginning, he had it all. Let me suggest, though, that what happened at least in American literature, is that mainstream literature began to equate "serious writing" with realism. Therefore the better writers became very uneasy about producing anything imaginative at all. Before long, fantastic fiction was pretty much relegated to pulp magazines only. Back in 1890, any respectable writer could produce a science fiction story, and it could be published in a major magazine. By about 1920, a new science fiction novel was more likely to be a serial in Argosy, something like The Blind Spot by Hall and Flint, and it was ghastly. But at least the Argosy writers still knew what narrative was. Then you get to the Gernsback Amazing and even that has been lost, and all that's left is a turgid lecture tour, with footnotes and diagrams, something like Ralph 124C41+. Only very slowly did the science fiction field rediscover narrative technique, and only slowly has the mainstream rediscovered imaginative fiction.

VINGE: I think technology itself could drive the next developments in art, and much more radically than commercial disruptions such as online publication or Amazon's Kindle: Suppose the Technological Singularity happens. Then in the early years of the post-humans, we will have something that we haven't had in the last 30,000 years, the analog of the first painting or the first story or the first traveling-salesman joke. So I think that the situation for the early post-human artists will be very interesting.

I am not disputing the analysis you made of the 20th century; this is a separate issue, a follow-on to the era of embellishment I claimed a few paragraphs above. The early post-humans will be like the early humans in that almost anything their artists do will be done for the first time. So that would be a great time to be a post-human, to watch that process.

SCHWEITZER: Would they have any use for human art?

VINGE: I think so. After all, we humans make reference to animals and their works in our art. Some of the new art might be intelligible to us, since we can guess at analogies between souls, societies and processes, networks, and how those analogies would affect mortality and identity issues. But you'd have to be one of the new creatures to fully appreciate the new stuff.

SCHWEITZER: Would they still read Hamlet?

VINGE: Probably, and they would probably appreciate our understanding of such art as well as we do. If they ever decided to write for the animals (us!), they could probably wow the hell out of us. On the other hand, their use of Hamlet in their own art might be variously unintelligible to us, or require a lifetime of human experience in some odd context to appreciate. (What would a human joke about gopher behavior look like to another gopher?)

SCHWEITZER: So if science fiction is reaching this decadent stage you are describing, and the only way out is for us to evolve into something more than human, what is the present-day science fiction writer to do?

VINGE: Some form of this question applies to all art in the current era.

Let's consider a couple of scenarios: Suppose the Singularity doesn't happen (and not because of some civilization ending violence, like nuclear war). Well, the "decadent/embellished" stage can be a lot of fun, and I imagine that in many arts there is still lots of room for hybridization between contemporary forms and with all the past forms that are now so accessible. Beyond that, how have baroque eras ended in the past? Most of those escape paths probably exist in the early twenty-first century -- except that eventually, with our easy access to almost all past forms, it is harder to mistake rehash for novelty.

On the other hand, suppose we truly are approaching the Singularity. In that case, the cool thing for science-fiction is that at least we have the literary license to watch and speculate. I gave a talk at ICFA last year ("What Future for Fantasy?"). I made the point about artistic elaboration. We may not be into the gross excesses of such a phase, but since we have such good access to past art, we really need some form of rescue. Watch where art goes. See if we can escape into true novelty through the interaction of technology with mind and society.

SCHWEITZER: What are you doing in the immediate future, other than planning to evolve into something else?

VINGE: [Laughs.]

SCHWEITZER: Surely for the short-term, you have to write books in the same manner as before.

VINGE: Quite so. I am trundling forward with a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep entitled The Children of the Sky. It's going pretty well. It's set on the Tines World. The Tines are small pack-minds; four or five animals make a person. This lets me deal concretely with issues of identity, the subconscious, perception, and so on. In some cases I can point to a pack member and say, "That's the speech center. If we take him out, we will do this to the pack." It's a fun playground. It is also, I hope, a story that will appeal to the presently existing readership, since the superhuman readership isn't around yet -- and neither is the superhuman writer!

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Vernor.

End of Part Two. Part One appeared in IGMS issue 15.

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