RIP Vernor Vinge

An immense figure who helped transform how we see the future

RIP Vernor Vinge
Image: Andrew Liptak

One of the very first "proper" science fiction books that I picked up as a teenager was a chunky paperback with bold red letters with a spaceship approaching what looked like an asteroid. It was a copy of Vernor Vinge's novel A Deepness in the Sky, and decades later, I still haven't gotten to read it. It's always been one of those aspirational to-read books for me (I included it in a list of a pile of classic books that I want to read last year), because of the influence and acclaim that's been sent its way.

Vinge passed away at the age of 79 on Wednesday: fellow author David Brin posted the news on Facebook, saying that he was "a titan in the literary genre that explores a limitless range of potential destinies, Vernor enthralled millions with tales of plausible tomorrows, made all the more vivid by his polymath masteries of language, drama, characters and the implications of science." The cause of death was complications related to Parkinsons, which he had been contending with for the last couple of years. (h/t to Nick G. in the Transfer Orbit slack for alerting us to the news.)

Technology and its deployment is often a fixture of the science fiction genre. Authors writing in 20th century pulp magazines often explored the future of air or space travel, imagining new vehicles that transported humans across the world and to the stars. As computer technology became widespread in the later half of the century, authors began to imagine the wild implications for our futures. Vinge was one of those authors.

Born on October 2nd, 1944, Vinge went on to attend Michigan State University, before moving on to the University of California in San Diego, where he eventually earned his PhD in mathematics in 1971, and taught both mathematics and computer science at San Diego State University until 2000, when he retired. He began publishing science fiction in his early 20s in magazines such as New Worlds, If, and Analog Science Fiction throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. In 1969, he expanded one of his novellas into a novel, Grimm's World, and followed it in 1976 with The Witling.

Over the course of the 1980s, Vinge gained attention for his stories imagining digital worlds, which would eventually become a central conceit to the cyberpunk movement. His 1984 novel The Peace War and its sequel, 1986's Marooned in Realtime explored the ramifications of power and technology and were each nominated for the Hugo Award. In 1982, Vinge helped popularize a now common-place term: "the singularity", a point in human development where technological progress undergoes an uncontrollable growth, with unpredictable consequences.

Writing in Omni Magazine a year later, Vinge described it as an " intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding... A Cro-Magnon man brought into our present could eventually understand the changes of the last 35,000 years, The differences between contemporary man and creatures who live beyond the singularity is incomparably more profound; Even if we could visit their era, most of what we would see would be forever incomprehensible." In 2000, he spoke on NPR's Fresh Air about technological progress and how a singularity would change everything. Another great interview to check out from him comes from 2012, when he spoke with the podcast Geek's Guide to the Galaxy.

In 1992, Vinge published A Fire Upon the Deep, a space opera set in the distant future involving interstellar superintelligences and efforts to contain a malevolent AI known as the "Blight". It shared the Hugo Award in 1993 with Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. In 1999, he published a prequel, A Deepness in the Sky, set tens of thousands of years earlier. It too earned the Hugo for Best Novel. In 2011, he published The Children of the Sky, a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. He published his last short story, "Legale", in Nature in 2017.

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Tor Books recently republished A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky as part of its Tor Essentials line.

Vinge's ideas have been incredibly influential within science fiction circles and beyond. Writing in Roger Luckhurst's Science Fiction: A Literary History, scholar Gerry Canavan explains that the concept of a world profoundly transformed by technology "has tremendous currency among tech capitalists such as Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk, many of whom have publicly stated that they believe the Singularity is imminent."

We live in a world that's increasingly defined by the technology around us. We rely on the infrastructure that extends around the world for almost everything we do. I've come to really appreciate one of the things that science fiction does best: remind us that there's a certain limit to our understanding of the world around us. The world and universe is an immensely complicated place, and that our perception of it is limited by the sensory input that we're biologically wired up for. In many ways, the technology that surrounds us has the potential to augment our understanding of the world, unlocking vast potential for how far we can see, hear, and speak into the world–provided we don't destroy ourselves in the process. Of the authors that were influential to my own understanding of the genre, I see plenty of roads leading back to Vinge and his ideas.

With his passing, we've lost an immense figure who helped transform how we see the future.