Vernor Vinge obituary

One day in 1979, while logged in to San Diego State University’s principal computer from his home, Vernor Vinge found himself chatting to another user via the TALK program, both using implausible names and trying to figure out each other’s true name. “Afterwards, I realised that I had just lived a science-fiction story – at least by the standards of my childhood,” recalled Vinge, a mathematics and computer science teacher at the university, who has died from Parkinson’s disease aged 79.

The encounter was the starting point for his novella True Names (1981), one of the first sci-fi stories to predict an internet that is remarkably familiar to us 40 years later, with its fully immersive multiplayer role-playing games, dark web, hackers and trolls. Its descriptions of a virtual reality battle between Mr Slippery and the Mailman predated William Gibson’s Neuromancer by three years and, while it was Gibson who named “cyberspace”, Vinge was the godparent of its iconography.

At a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in 1982, Vinge coined the term “the Singularity” to describe the increasingly rapid acceleration of AI; he expanded on the concept in an editorial in the science and sci-fi magazine Omni, in which he said: “We will soon create intelligences greater than our own. When this happens … the world will pass beyond our understanding.”

A decade later, in The Coming Technological Singularity (1993), Vinge predicted that within 30 years “we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

In his novel Marooned in Realtime (1986), a singularity event in the 23rd century known as “the Extinction” has repercussions 50 million years in the future, when only a handful of humans have been able to survive in “bobbles”, impenetrable force fields in which time slows to zero. One of the scientists trying to reconnect humanity is murdered – perhaps uniquely for a locked-room murder mystery, she is locked outside. This was a sequel to The Peace War (1984), in which the new stasis technology is shown to be misused by the ruling Peace Authority.

Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and its prequel A Deepness in the Sky (1999) both won Hugo awards. A fine example of how Vinge could be rigorously true to his scientific beliefs without it limiting his ability to write galaxy-spanning space opera, A Fire Upon the Deep sidestepped the inevitability of all civilisations destroying themselves by dividing the Milky Way into “zones of thought”: the galaxy centre being the Unthinking Depths, surrounded by the Slow Zone and, a little further out, the Beyond, leading into Transcend. In this way he could write a far future-set adventure, where discoveries among the relics of a long-dead civilisation lead to the emergence of a malevolent AI called the Blight.

A Deepness in the Sky is set 30,000 years earlier, the characters unaware of the zones of thought, which makes it almost a standalone epic about an emerging spider civilisation unaware that it is being battled over by space-faring races.

Vinge won more Hugos, for the novellas Fast Times at Fairmont High (2001) and The Cookie Monster (2003) and the novel Rainbow’s End (2006), set in a near future dominated by augmented reality.

Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the son of Clarence Vinge, a teacher at the state college, and his wife, Ada (nee Rolands), Vernor earned a mathematics degree from Michigan State University in 1966, and a master’s (1968) and PhD (1971) from the University of California, San Diego. He began working as an assistant professor at San Diego State University in 1972, rising to associate professor of mathematics in 1978, and retiring in 2000.

Vinge described his youthful self as an imaginative child who “wanted interstellar empires (interplanetary ones at the least). I wanted supercomputers and artificial intelligence and effective immortality. All seemed possible.” Science fiction was his window into this world. He began writing as a teenager, selling one story, Apartness, to Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine in 1965 and Bookworm, Run, a story involving an escaped chimp with enhanced intelligence, to John W Campbell’s Analog in 1966.

Damon Knight published Grimm’s Story in his 1968 anthology Orbit, and asked if Vinge could expand it into a novel. He could, as Grimm’s World (1969, later revised and expanded as Tatja Grimm’s World, 1987), with Tatja Grimm the ruler of a primitive planet who reaches out to greater civilisations, only to be beset by slavers. The Witling (1976) featured a world in which everyone has the power to teleport, and a shipwrecked anthropological team from Earth who are considered low-status “witlings” (half-wits), fit only for slavery.

Vinge’s last published novel, The Children of the Sky (2011) was a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. While he then retired from writing (only two vignettes were published later), his body of work continued to be recognised with various honours, including the Robert A Heinlein award in 2020, rewarding “an author whose body of work inspires the human exploration of space”.

Vinge married Joan Dennison in 1972; she wrote under the name of Joan D Vinge, and they divorced in 1979. He is survived by his sister, Patricia.

Vernor Steffen Vinge, mathematician, computer scientist and writer, born 2 October 1944; died 20 March 2024

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