Vernor Vinge, Innovative Science Fiction Novelist, Dies at 79

by The Technical Blogs


Vernor Vinge, a mathematician and prolific science fiction author who in the 1980s wrote a novella that offered an early glimpse of what became known as cyberspace, and who soon after that hypothesized that artificial intelligence would outstrip human intelligence, died on March 20 in the La Jolla area of San Diego. He was 79.

James Frenkel, who edited nearly all of his work since 1981, said the cause of his death, in an assisted living facility, was Parkinson’s disease.

David Brin, a science fiction writer and a friend of Mr. Vinge’s, said in a tribute on Facebook, “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.”

Mr. Vinge (pronounced VIN-jee) was renowned for his novella “True Names” (1981), in which he created an early version of cyberspace — a virtual reality technology he called the “Other Plane” — a year before William Gibson gave the nascent digital ecosystem its name in a story, “Burning Chrome,” and three years later popularized the word in his novel “Neuromancer.”

In “True Names,” Mr. Slippery, one of the anonymous computer hackers known as warlocks who work within the Other Plane, is identified and caught by the government (the “Great Enemy”) and forced to help stop a threat posed by another warlock.

Mr. Vinge created an early version of cyberspace — a virtual reality technology he called the “Other Plane” — in his novella “True Names,” first published in 1981.Credit…Tor Books

In a 2001 feature about Mr. Vinge, Katie Hafner, a technology reporter for The New York Times, wrote that “True Names” “portrays a world rife with pseudonymous characters and other elements of online life that now seem almost ho-hum,” adding that in retrospect the book seemed “prophetic.”

Mr. Vinge’s immersion in computers at San Diego State University, where he began teaching in 1972, led him to develop his vision of a “technological singularity,” a tipping point at which the intelligence of machines possesses and then exceeds that of humans.

He described an early version of his vision in an article in Omni magazine in 1983.

“We’re at the point of accelerating the evolution of intelligence itself,” he wrote, adding, “Whether our work is cast in silicon or DNA will have little effect on the ultimate results.” He wrote that the moment of the intellectual transition would be as “impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole,” and that at that moment “the world will pass far beyond our understanding.”

A decade later, he fleshed out the intellectual transition — the singularity — in a paper (subtitled “How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”) for a symposium sponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute.

“Within 30 years,” he said, “we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. Is such progress avoidable? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive?”

That prediction has not come true, but artificial intelligence has accelerated to the point that some people fear the technology will replace them.

Mr. Frenkel said that Mr. Vinge used the concept of singularities in his “Zones of Thought” series, in which they are superintelligent beings in a part of the galaxy called the Transcend.

“They are entities of pure thought,” Mr. Frenkel said in a phone interview. “They’re enormously powerful. Some are beneficent and some are malevolent.”

Mr. Vinge won one of his five Hugo Awards for “A Deepness in the Sky” (2000), a novel in his “Zones of Thought” series.Credit…Tor Books

Two of the novels in that series, “A Fire Upon the Deep” (1993) and “A Deepness in the Sky” (2000), won the Hugo Award, the top honor in the science fiction genre. Mr. Vinge also received Hugos for another novel, “Rainbows End” (2007), and for the novellas “Fast Times at Fairmont High” (2002) and “The Cookie Monster” (2004).

Reviewing “A Fire Upon the Deep” in Wired magazine, Peter Schwartz wrote: “Not since William Gibson gave us the fully realized world of cyberspace in ‘Neuromancer’ has anyone given us so rich a diet of new ideas. Imagine a universe where the laws of physics vary along the axis of the great wheel of the Milky Way galaxy.”

Vernor Steffen Vinge was born on Oct. 2, 1944, in Waukesha, Wis., and moved with his family to East Lansing, Mich., where his father, Clarence, taught geography at Michigan State University. His mother, Ada Grace (Rowlands) Vinge, was a geographer who wrote two books with her husband.

After graduating from Michigan State with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1966, Mr. Vinge received his master’s degree and his Ph.D. in the same subject at the University of California, San Diego, in 1968 and 1971. He began teaching math at San Diego State University in 1972 but eventually shifted to computer science after he began “playing with real computers” in the early 1970s, he told The Times. He retired in 2000 to focus on his writing.

“Vernor liked teaching, and was very popular with students, but he mentioned he could only really find time to write between semesters (principally summers),” John Carroll, a colleague of Mr. Vinge’s in the computer science department at San Diego State and the executor of his estate, wrote in an email. “Something had to give, and his teaching could be done by others, but the increased flow of novels and ideas was irreplaceable.”

Mr. Vinge’s first published short story, “Apartness,” appeared in New Worlds magazine in 1965. Four years later he published his first novel, “Grimm’s World,” which revolves around a 700-year-old science fiction magazine — published on a gargantuan globe-traveling barge — that is the source of technological progress in the world.

In 1972, he married Joan Dennison. That marriage ended in divorce seven years later, but they remained friends. As Joan Vinge, she has won five Hugo Awards. She married Mr. Frenkel, who is her editor, in 1980.

Mr. Vinge’s sister, Patricia Vinge, is his only immediate survivor.

Mr. Vinge was teaching networks and operating systems when he got the idea for “True Names.” He had been using an early form of instant messaging called Talk in the late 1970s when he and another user tried to figure out each other’s names.

“Finally, I gave up and told the other person I had to go — that I was actually a personality simulator, and if I kept talking, my artificial nature would become obvious,” he was quoted as saying in the 2001 Times article. “Afterwards I realized that I had just lived a science fiction story.”

Mr. Vinge occasionally returned to the subject of the singularity.

When he was interviewed in 2000 for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” he said that his prognostication was inspired in part by Moore’s Law, which was posited in 1965 by Gordon Moore, then the head of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor and later a founder of Intel. It stated that every year the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double, without much of a rise in cost, exponentially increasing the power of computing. Mr. Moore later amended it to every two years.

The logical conclusion suggested by Moore’s Law, Mr. Vinge said, was that “we will hit a crossover point” that would make computers as intellectually powerful as humans — “assuming someone can program them.”


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