Never before, Vernor Vinge, was so close to the Technological Singularity. Here, this space op’ virtuoso tries a brand new mix, halfway to cyberpunk and prospective fiction. Highly volatile mixture, but perfectly controlled. He was kind enough to unveil some of the fabrication’s secrets of a well-deserved Locus Award.
ActuSF : Rainbows End is very surprising for French readers, who know you mostly through your space opera. Were you a bit tired of it ?
Vernor Vinge : Rainbows End was a nice change of pace for me. However, I still enjoy space opera. I also have some ideas for stories that are neither space opera nor near-future SF.
ActuSF : How did you build your vision of the future for Rainbows End ?
Vernor Vinge : The technical aspect of Rainbows End came simply from extrapolating computer and communication trends. The social aspect came from trying to imagine how we might cope with the technical aspect :-)
ActuSF : It’s always difficult to envision near future. How do you picture Rainbows End within a couple of decades ? What would it be like ?
Vernor Vinge : Envisioning the near future is especially hard. One "knows" that what one writes is going to show ludicrous errors within the selling lifetime of the book (though we sf writers have developed a several "future-proofing" techniques that provide us with some protection against such surprises :-)
I had special problems with Rainbows End, since it took me so very long to write it. I was afraid that parts of my story might already happen (or been contradicted) before I even finished the story !
ActuSF : Do you think acceleration, and especially technological acceleration is inescapable ?
Vernor Vinge : No. I think technological acceleration could fail in two rather different ways :
1) Some things may turn out to be much more difficult than we think. Technological trend curves are not laws of nature.
2) Physical disasters (human-made and/or natural) could intervene. As long as we are trapped on Earth, all our hopes are at risk.
ActuSF : Most of your our other novels took place after the Singularity. Did you feel your readers were needing to know more about "the before" ?
Vernor Vinge : I have avoided writing stories inside the Singularity – mainly because I feel there is an unknowability about mere humans writing and reading about such a time (ie, when greater-than-human intellects are at play).
I have written stories that take place millions of years after the probable occurence of a Technological Singularity (in Marooned in Realtime). I have written stories that take place some distance away from where the Singularity can happen (in A Fire Upon the Deep). In the case of Rainbows End, I have a written a story that is arguably right before (or in the initial stages of) the Singularity.
ActuSF : You’ve never been so close, in any of your previous novels, to the origin of the Singularity. Was there any urgent need of explanation ?
Vernor Vinge : No. Rainbows End looks at one plausible scenario, but there are others.
ActuSF : Do we have to be afraid of the Singularity ?
Vernor Vinge : I think the Technological Singularity is the most likely non-catastrophic outcome for this century (even though it itself could be catastrophic). There are many catastrophic possibilities for this century – see Martin Rees’s nonfiction book Our Final Hour. During the last century, many people have imagined that perhaps 100,000 or a million years from now, we humans will have gone on to become or create something better than ourselves. For many people, this is a comforting thought, a kind of validating outcome for all the moral and intellectual striving of humanity in the millennia of our history. On the other hand, the prospect that something such as this (the Singularity) could happen within our children’s lifetime, or within our own lifetime – that is scary !
ActuSF : In Rainbows End, there’s a switch between generations as they’re usually seen in fiction. Hackers and "juvenile delinquents" are all about 70 years old, and youngsters are mainly dedicated consumers, surfing the internet by the book. What is the message ?
Vernor Vinge : Some of the old people in Rainbows End are very effective. (And whether effective or not, many of them are relatively healthy and rich.) While many still worry about poverty issues, the majority are well enough and rich enough to be a new type of upper class. In the 2025 of Rainbows End, the situation with old people is a surprising reversal of our current anxiety about pension plan insolvency.
Just as in our time, most teenagers are better adapted to the latest technology than are their parents – though they are more worried than most of their parents ever were about the prospect of unemployment. And some of the youngest children (6 to 10 years old) are extraordinarily adept in exploiting the newest cognitive tools, and are regarded somewhat fearfully by their older siblings.
ActuSF : The Internet you describe seems to be a very "Patriot Act Compatible" one, but people seem to be ok with that. Do you think people aren’t aware enough of what internet could be, and of all the things that could threaten the integrity of the internet ?
Vernor Vinge : There is an ongoing (co)evolution of insight. Before the year 1984, I think most people were quite apprehensive about how computers might be used by tyrants – just consider George Orwell’s novel 1984.
But ironically, around the year 1984, the Personal Computer arrived and for fifteen or twenty years many of us thought that computers in the hands of the people would bring an end to tyrannies. Now in the early 21st century, the tyrants are catching up. It’s not hard to see how ubuiquitous surveillance, total information awareness, and the subornation of ISPs may be used to install tyranny more extreme than we had ever imagined before. (A good overview of this is The Digital Imprimatur, by John Walker ).
ActuSF : Do you think that Singularity will come from people’s abdication of their rights and duties from things they could barely understand ?
Vernor Vinge : No. For better or worse, the Technological Singularity is a bigger kind of event than that. Our talking about it is a little like cats trying to imagine what the advent of humankind will do to their squabbles.
ActuSF : There’s no Creative Commons in your future. Is it on purpose ?
Vernor Vinge : Rainbows End is a look at a scenario in which most of the statist dreams of computer control appear to have come true. Apparently Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology has been completely successful. (There is a black market in free computers and illegal artwork, but it is a little bit like the drug wars of our era.)
ActuSF : You’re talking about copyright, and the way artists could earn good money from their arts. Most especially, you’re evoking the idea of micro-royalties. Do you think that the new economic model should emerge from such a system ?
Vernor Vinge : Rainbows End envisages a time when every (legal) processor chip has a certain percentage of its area controlled by the government. Since embedded processors are ubiguitous (even more than nowadays), this is like having a policeman and a government regulator in every device in the world. (I have a nice block diagram of such a processor here ) Thus regulations and taxation (not just criminal law) are ubiquitous. Some people in the story think that this is a utopia. For example, the amount of visible government regulation and paperwork is much less than in our time. On the other hand, I think most of us would see problems with such a world. This is a big part of what the story is about.
ActuSF : And talking about emerging systems, do you think AI could arise from the internet ?
Vernor Vinge : Yes. I see people+computers+networks as one of several possible paths to the Singularity (I list others here ) At the present time, this path appears to be proceeding more successfully than the other possibilities.
ActuSF : Oddly enough, you barely evoke post-humanity. Do you think that Technological Singularity will be so fast, that it will cancel all post-human hopes ?
Vernor Vinge : Rainbows End probably takes place just before the Technological Singularity (or perhaps the Library Riot is really the beginning of the Singularity). If one considers the special characters in the story...
Bob Gu and his Marine Corps expeditionary force, Alfred Vaz and what he has accomplished, Mr. Rabbit and Dangerous Knowledge – there is a kind of spectrum of capability that ranges from the unrealistically superior performance that we excuse in melodrama, out to behavior that is hard to explain in merely human terms.
ActuSF : Your future isn’t hostile, but could appear a bit freaky for readers of today. Is there any state of emergency ?
Vernor Vinge : Unfortunately, I think we face many emergencies. The most serious threats come from cheap superweapons and the social and environmental problems that make the use of such weapons imaginable. On the positive side, we have hundreds of millions of people who are smart, of good nature, and communicating with one another. These people massively outnumber the crazy badguys. In fact, the broad reach of communicating humanity also outnumbers (and intellectually outmatches) the government leaders who play statist games. Furthermore, that broad reach of humanity is the fundamental powerhouse for the economies of all nations which aspire to prosperity or greatness. More and more, governments realize that whatever the laws, they need educated, creative, and relatively satisfied populations. Such populations make very good stewards of the future.
ActuSF : Do you think you would be able to write a novel like Rainbows End ten years ago ?
Vernor Vinge : For the technical aspects of the book : probably ’yes’. Certainly I could have done it seven years ago. (In fact, my novella, Fast Times at Fairmont High (2000) had most of this technology.) Ten years ago, I’m not sure I would have wanted to put technological terrorism as a centerpiece problem.
ActuSF : There’s a lot of empathy for scientists like Xiu Xiang. Are you afraid of being lost in the forthcoming technological world ?
Vernor Vinge : Oh yes. Without some amplification, keeping up will be impossible to do :-)
ActuSF : Have you ever known if Terry Pratchett was happy to know that, in near future, fans would spend time and money to build the Discworld in the "almost" real life ?
Vernor Vinge : I don’t know. However, I have enjoyed Terry Pratchett’s novels enormously. His writing is literature (even though it is so much fun that some people may not realize this). If he reads this book I hope he likes it.
ActuSF : So, is there a treasure at the Rainbow’s End ?
Vernor Vinge : That is the mystery of the book. I think the answer — as with our real world — is yes, but without guaranty.
ActuSF : Have you read the novels from other authors, talking about the Singularity ?
Vernor Vinge : Yes. In particular, Greg Bear’s novel, Blood Music from many years ago. Greg opened my eyes about the possibility of technological evolution progressing so fast that it might look like a physical explosion to the merely human viewpoint. More recently, Charles Stross’s Accelerando has confronted the problem of writing about the transition more directly than anyone.
ActuSF : What are your projects now ?
Vernor Vinge : I am working on a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. It takes place on Tines World, about ten years after the end of AFUD.
Photo : Copyright Vlasta Radan
The event as the Uplift Academy’s "Good Ancestor Principle" workshop