Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Vinge, Vernor

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1944-    ) US author and professor of mathematics at San Diego State University until 2000, when he retired to write full-time; married to Joan D Vinge 1972-1979. He began publishing sf with "Apartness" for New Worlds in June 1965, and appeared fairly regularly in Analog, his best early work being collected in True Names and Other Dangers (coll 1987), which contains Hard SF responsive to the thrust of technological progress (the title novella had earlier appeared as True Names [1981 dos]), and Threats ... and Other Promises (coll 1988), which includes more diverse material. His first novel, Grimm's World (in Orbit 4, anth 1966, ed Damon Knight as "Grimm's Story"; fixup 1969; exp vt Tatja Grimm's World 1987), is a colourfully told adventure set on a primitive human planet exploited by interstellar slavers, with intriguingly elaborated detail. It is significantly less anodyne (or Ruritanian) than its description implies, and the punning title of the book turns out to be not inappropriate; the title character Tatja Grimm is a misfit in her world owing to unprecedented Intelligence. From the first Vinge combined a feeling for the movement and thrill of humanity's high-tech progress through the Universe, with a sense that individual lives were bleak and often brutish. His second novel, The Witling (1976), repeats a situation basic to the first – intruding humans on a colony planet are confronted by humanoids with special talents, here a variety of Psi Powers including Teleportation – and confirmed the essential chill of his vision.

True Names (1981 dos) was the first of his tales to establish his reputation firmly as one of the more interesting writers of the period. It depicts an early version of Cyberspace inhabited by hackers interacting in a Virtual-Reality environment, but threatened by the incursion of a possibly paranormal (or demented) colleague seeking absolute power over the world. The story is intermittently tangled, but the cyberspace vision was prescient. The Realtime/Bobbles sequence – The Peace War (May-August 1984 Analog; 1984) and Marooned in Realtime (May-August 1986 Analog; 1986), assembled as Across Realtime (omni 1986; with "The Ungoverned" added, exp 1991) – is similarly acute in its presentation of Technologies not yet competently handled by sf, from Computers to Genetic Engineering, though its use once again of protagonists with seemingly paranormal powers tends to reduce any sense of novelty. Marooned in Realtime's intricately plotted progress of various characters from near to far future, via an inventively deployed Stasis Field technology, is narratively arousing, as is the murder mystery they find on an Earth which, like an abandoned playground, has long ago been left behind by an evolving humanity (see Singularity). However, the background to these exhilarated tales is depicted with Vinge's usual coldness.

He is a writer who, while risking the worst of genre sillinesses, remains dangerously acute, as his next novel, the long and complex A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), demonstrates. The tale – which involves converging interstellar quests for a McGuffin "Countermeasure" capable of destroying a dread AI Power that has been reawakened from five billion years' sleep and is destroying (or rather, absorbing) millions of civilizations – is set in a complexly visualized Galaxy-wide Space-Opera setting, skilfully designed to give room for human-scale action within a vast canvas, though in fact Homo sapiens is a very minor player in this arena; the information webs which convey near-infinities of information among the myriad worlds of the venue amusingly reflect the telephone-linked computer nets of the 1980s and early 1990s (see Internet). Another space-operatic ingenuity is the division of the galaxy into concentric Zones of Thought with varying limitations of Physics: the Unthinking Depths of the core, where even Intelligence cannot exist, are surrounded by the Slow Zone (Earth's location; see Fermi Paradox) which allows only limited AI and is generally bound by the speed restrictions of Relativity; further out in the Beyond, AIs can be superhuman and Faster Than Light travel is easy; the High Beyond merges into the unknowable Transcend (see Transcendence) where intelligence tends towards the godlike. Among A Fire Upon the Deep's most interesting Aliens are the doglike pack-animal Tines (see Hive Minds), introduced in "The Blabber" (in Threats ... and Other Promises, coll 1988). The tale as a whole is cunningly crafted, deftly told, and bracingly chill in its ultimate implications; it shared the 1993 Hugo Award with Connie Willis's Doomsday Book (1992).

Vinge returned to the Zones of Thought universe with the prequel A Deepness in the Sky (1999), taking place some 30,000 years before A Fire Upon the Deep. Here the action is on a smaller scale, set in the Slow Zone and centred on a highly anomalous Star (whose properties suggest an artefact from the Beyond) with its associated planet of spider-like Aliens. Two visiting human factions – one unpleasantly authoritarian, enslaving its victims in a kind of induced autism that makes them compulsive workers (see Psychology; Slavery) – clash in space above the spider world; the survivors must reluctantly work together to achieve First Contact and exploit planetary resources to rebuild their Starships. Below on the planet, a parallel storyline follows the repercussions of a spider-genius's various Inventions (see Edisonade) on his society. The convolutions of plot are intricate, compulsive, and ultimately laden with disturbing ironies when viewed in the light of the earlier book (readers of which possess information unavailable to any character in Deepness). A Deepness in the Sky won the Hugo, John W Campbell Memorial Award and Prometheus Award. A third volume, the more intimate The Children of the Sky (2011), set a decade after the first volume, seemed inconclusive, though the overall story progresses: the galaxy-destroying entity known as the Blight continues to destroy all sentient cultures in its path; and meanwhile the eponymous offspring of the original Scientists who unknowingly triggered the Blight attempt to prepare the Tines from volume one to resist the coming doom.

A retrospective story collection, excluding "True Names" – given its own volume along with several nonfiction pieces as True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier (coll 2001) – is The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (coll 2001). This includes the new tale "Fast Times at Fairmont High", which won a Hugo as best novella, as did "The Cookie Monster" (October 2003 Analog). Vinge's next novel Rainbows End (2006) is closely related to "Fast Times at Fairmont High", set in the same Near-Future California – specifically, San Diego – transformed by various Technologies including intelligence Drugs, an Alzheimer's cure, and pervasive Internet presence allowing 3D holographic Avatars to manifest virtually anywhere. The mysterious character Rabbit, who may be an AI but whose Identity is not clarified, is only ever seen thus. The plot, theoretically dealing with the need to suppress (or suppress evidence of) a new system of mass mind control, has touches of light-hearted family sitcom, outright farce, and some bizarre set-pieces like the blackly comic revelation of the Librareome Project's hideously efficient and destructive book-digitization process. This novel too won a Hugo.

Vinge's 1993 paper "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" (presented 1993; Winter 1993 Whole Earth Review) put forward the influential concept, much addressed in subsequent sf, of the technological Singularity (which see). [JC/DRL]

see also: Ansible; Arrested Development; Games and Sports; Libertarian SF; Lost Races; Race in SF; Robert A Heinlein Award; Time Travel; Ultrawave; Upload; Weapons.

Vernor Steffen Vinge

born Waukesha, Wisconsin: 2 October 1944




Zones of Thought

individual titles

collections and stories



previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies