The Cosmic Codex
The Cosmic Codex
A singular writer

A singular writer

Three time Hugo Award-winning author Vernor Vinge dies at 79
“Long-term thinker” by Brian S. Pauls, 2024; Digital illustration made using Midjourney.
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As I recall, I first learned of Vernor Vinge a year or two out of college. My friend Karl had stopped by after visiting our local used book store. He’d picked up a copy of Day of the Triffids as a gift for me. He’d also donated his copy of Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning 1992 novel A Fire Upon the Deep. I told him I’d never read it. In fact, I had never heard of it.

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Karl proceeded to describe the overall premise of the novel, his excitement obvious in his voice and manner. He finished by telling me,

“You have to read it! I’m going to go buy it back and give it to you. Just promise me you’ll donate it back again when you’ve finished it.”

I was a bit skeptical I would enjoy the book as much as Karl did. But it sounded like a good space opera, so I was game.

I shouldn’t have doubted. Not only is A Fire Upon the Deep one of the best space opera’s I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read.

Vinge posits a universe where the laws of physics change the further one is from the center of the galaxy.

In the center (the “Unthinking Depths”) computers and even biological brains have trouble functioning.

Further out, in a ring (the “Slow Zone”) around the Unthinking Depths, life has no problem evolving intelligence, but true artificial intelligence is impossible, as is faster-than-light travel. This is where ancient Earth is located, but humanity has left it long ago.

In the outermost ring (the “Beyond”), science fiction societies abound, with intelligent computers, megastructures, faster-than-light starships, etc.

Surrounding the Beyond, at the outer fringes of the Milky Way (the “Transcend”) super-intelligent godlike (or demonlike) beings think imponderable thoughts and do unknowable things.

It’s magnificent, and won its author the 1993 Hugo Award (his first of three.)

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Vinge taught computer science at San Diego university until he retired in 2000 to concentrate on writing. His area of expertise shows up in his work, as in the galactic version of Usenet that ties the civilizations of the Beyond together. And in A Deepness in the Sky, a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, where a back door written into a version of Unix/Linux with centuries-long pedigree plays a crucial role. I was privileged to be present in 2000 when Vinge received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Deepness at the Campbell Conference in Lawrence, Kansas. The book also won Vinge his second Hugo.

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Vinge’s background in computer science led him to propose his most famous idea, the Singularity. His article “"The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” appeared in a 1993 issue of the magazine Whole Earth Review.

Vernor Vinge died on Wednesday from complications due to Parkinson’s Disease, at the age of 79. We have lost his voice, but his ideas remain with us, and seem more relevant than ever.

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