Thursday 21 March 2024

A Tribute To Vernor Vinge

Even if you haven't read anything that Vernor Vinge wrote, you've likely read something that was inspired by his work. He was a titan in his field and his work spoke to fans around the globe.
This blog would likely not exist
without Vernor Vinge’s novel
A Deepness In The Sky.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)

When he died yesterday, his influence could be found in almost every corner of science fiction.

Vinge began writing science fiction when he was a teenager, penning the story “Bookworm Run!” while a senior in high school in 1962. It’s a story that appeared in print four years later, about the machine-human interface and the creation of a cyborg. Interestingly, it foreshadows much of Vinge’s career.

Cyborgs had, of course, been a science fiction staple for almost four decades by the time “Bookworm Run!” was written. Up to this point, cybernetic augmentation was depicted as either improving the physical abilities of the human, or challenging their self-identity (as in “No Woman Born” by CL Moore). In contrast, and as he would do often throughout his career, Vinge tried to imagine what it would be like for a human to think better.

“I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss,” he said about the story four decades after he’d written it. “It’s a problem writers face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own.”

In an era of punch-card readers and memory measured in dozens of bits, Vinge recognized the potential of computers in a way that most of his peers did not.

He earned his PhD in computer science at the University of California San Diego in 1971, studying conformal maps (functions that locally preserve angles, but not necessarily lengths), writing a thesis on Solutions to Extremal Problems in E^p Spaces. He began teaching computer science at San Diego State University later that year, which became the focus of his academic career.

Over the decades, Vinge became known for stories about enhanced cognition through consciousness uploading (“True Names”), machine-human cooperation (The Peace War), alternate-architecture group consciousness (Amdi in Fire Upon The Deep), virally-altered brain chemistry (Deepness In The Sky), and many more.

 In 1962 when Vinge started writing about computers,
the most powerful computer on Earth was the
Atlas 2 in Manchester UK. It had a 48-bit core memory.
(Image via Chilton Computers)
These ideas of altered and elevated consciousness dovetailed nicely with another of Vinge’s other major themes: the technological singularity, or the idea that more intelligent computers will drive the creation of even faster computers until progress advances so quickly it can no longer be understood.

“Singularity is the point at which our old models will have to be discarded, where a new reality will reign,” Vinge wrote. “This is a world whose outlines will become clearer, approaching modern humanity, until this new reality obscures surrounding reality, becoming commonplace.”

One of these forays into singularitarianism helped launch an entire subgenre of science fiction. First appearing in a Dell paperback alongside George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers, the story True Names offered a blueprint for cyberpunk that would influence and inspire everything from blockbuster movies to role playing games and television series.

Perhaps just as prescient are passages like the scene at the end of A Deepness In The Sky, when Trixia Bonsol asserts the value of neurodiversity, and the right of individuals to have differing experiences of consciousness. Bonsol is one of a number of characters whose consciousnesses become chained by the villainous Emergents; her will subsumed by neurochemical conditioning such that her brain becomes a living computer. Because her brain has become “focused” on the task that she’s best at (translation), she is no longer neurotypical.

Trixia’s decision at the end of the novel to remain focused is quietly a revolutionary act that can be read as celebrating the value, independence, and agency of those on the autism spectrum.

Vinge is often praised for his wide-ranging imagination and for exploring weird, wonderful, and unique science fictional concepts. He should also be recognized for being ahead of his time on some political matters and his centering the better natures of humanity. He was critical of South Africa’s apartheid regime when many looked the other way. And he was never as reactionary as some right-wing fans wanted him to be.

Vinge accepted the Hugo for Best Novel in
Chicago in 2000 for Deepness In The Sky.
(Image via Midamericon)
“Every anarchical scheme has some set of assumptions for why people will cooperate (you can usually spot the assumption in the names: anarcho-communism, anarcho-capitalism…),” he once wrote. “There’s a fundamental problem all such plans must face: how to prevent the formation of power groups large enough to in fact be the government.”

Vinge’s last Hugo-winning novel Rainbows End is set next year. Published in 2006, the book correctly predicted Uber-like micro-transactions, and widely-available wireless broadband, and the ability for hackers to track everyone via the signals emitted by their devices. Sadly, the ubiquitous use of augmented reality goggles, driverless cars, and a cure for Alzheimer’s all remain on the horizon.

Despite his influence, Vinge was never going to be a household name outside of the genre. His writing was inescapably fannish, he was one of us, and he will be missed. 


  1. Appreciate your tribute to Vernor Vinge, who won several Prometheus Awards from the LFS (, including a Lifetime Achievement award and who I knew and very much admired.
    But who are these alleged libertarians who wanted him to be more "reactionary."? I don't believe they exist - or ever existed. I should know, as the LFS co-founder and a leading libertarian and Reason magazine writer in the 1970s and 1980s.
    Perhaps you didn't know that libertarians were leaders in the 60s/70s in opposing South Africa's apartheid system, and were ahead of our time (and still are on a variety of issues related to justice, ethics, non-aggression, basic human rights and reality-based recognition of the prerequisites for human flourishing) just as Vernor was. In fact, he was ahead of his time partly because he was a libertarian, which is correctly understood as a more consistent and modernized reaffirmation of the basic truths of classical liberalism.
    I knew virtually every leading libertarian thinker of the 1970s and 1980s and read nearly every libertarian journal and magazine. Not once did I ever come across any libertarian who criticized Vinge; Reason and the LFS have consistently praised him for nearly half a century now.
    Please correct and update your otherwise very nice tribute to Vinge to eliminate this libelous smear of libertarians, who are among those (like Steven Pinker) "centering the better natures of humanity." Thank you.

    1. We've changed the word libertarian to "right-wing." This wasn't meant to cast umbrage on the LFS, but rather a reference to what some folks on Twitter have said over the years.

    2. Thank you, Olav! (So prompt, too.) I have no objection at all (and perhaps some agreement) with your rewording.
      On the other hand, I've never trusted much what a variety of status-seeking, ill-informed and often nameless so-called "influencers" have had to say on Twitter (or X), then (before Elon) or now. I prefer to read and consider what the best writers and thinkers have to say in longer columns and essays on magazines and in actual (god forbid) books.
      I think it would be a better world if we promoted broader universal literacy - and encouraged everyone (including media-oriented, Smartphone-obsessed younger generations) to discover or rediscover the value of reading, enjoying and thinking about books - the best books, including the classics.
      (You can consider this a bit of a rant from someone who was a child of the '60s but is not a bit past my 60s.)

  2. Thank you for the tribute. I enjoyed his fiction as a kid. I have not returned to in a serious manner since. I have my eyes on his second (unknown) novel The Witling (1976) -- it is not supposed to be that great but I like to review the lesser known waters.... And maybe some of his early short fiction that fits in the parameters of my site!