The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

Gems From a Master of SF: The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Today, I’m going to look at an excellent collection of stories by one of the science fiction field’s greatest authors, Vernor Vinge. Even though I knew he had been ill, his recent death came as a shock to me. And just like I’d reach for a photo album to look at pictures of a departed family member, I often reach for an old favorite book when I hear about the death of an author; it is a chance to look back and remember.

The book I picked up to remember Vinge, ironically, is one I had never opened before. The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge is a handsome hardcover edition issued by Tor Books in 2001. The reason I hadn’t read the book was the fact I had read most of its contents in the past, either when the stories first appeared (primarily in my monthly Analog magazines), or in a pair of paperback anthologies that Baen Books had published a few years before. But like many other collectors, I am drawn to purchasing the works I enjoy in more durable and attractive formats. The only drawback with this book is that it does not contain True Names, Vinge’s seminal novella from 1981. Unfortunately, that story, widely held to be the inspiration for the cyberpunk subgenre that dominated science fiction in the late 20th century, was included in a separate anthology, keeping this book from being the definitive collection of Vinge’s shorter work.

About the Author

Vernor Vinge (1944-2024) was a California-based educator and science fiction author. His academic career focused on computer science and mathematics, and inspired some of the unique themes in his work. His first story sale was to Analog magazine in 1966, and he became an influential author of hard science fiction, engaging in speculation on technological developments that influenced not only his own work, but that of other writers. I’ve looked at two of his novels before in this column, A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky, and you can find more information on the author and his ideas in those reviews. There were a number of obituaries and tributes written about Vinge after his recent death, including pieces from The New York Times, here at Reactor, at the File 770 blog, and from SFWA, and James Davis Nicoll recently collected a list of Vinge’s best work here on the site, as well.

Major Themes and Concepts in Vinge’s Work

Vernor Vinge was an undeniably compelling author, but his stories were often dark in tone. They often dealt with war, disasters, and conflict, and his characters were often lucky simply to survive the tales. He not only had a knack at presenting advanced scientific concepts in ways that were easy to understand, but was also skilled in developing characters who were relatable, even if their environments were fantastic.

One of the concepts central to Vinge’s work was the idea that human civilization is headed for a massive disruption. His theory was presented in a 1993 essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” in which Vinge stated: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” And unlike some other predictions by science fiction authors that have been overtaken and made obsolete by time and circumstance, the recent explosion of Artificial Intelligence into public consciousness appears to be validating Vinge’s predictions, and in just a little over Vinge’s 30-year timeline. In fact, as I wrote this article, I found my web browser replaced by a new version that promised advanced features driven by AI—just one of many such changes appearing throughout the virtual world. Vinge predicted that the “singularity” would produce so many changes that life afterward would be incomprehensible to those living before the transformation.

As a result, many of Vinge’s stories have settings where the singularity is approaching, or where some major event, like a war or catastrophe, had prevented the event. But even though he saw a transformation in society as inevitable, and recognized that the universe is bound by immutable natural laws, he still had a desire to write science fiction stories free from those constraints. His solution was the creation of the “Zones of Thought,” a concept where the closer you were to the galactic center, the less possible it was to develop intelligence, with the galactic fringes being a place where superhuman intelligences were not only possible, but common, and where technologies like faster than light travel were possible. This concept was incorporated into what I feel are his best series of novels, A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, and The Children of the Sky, and the idea of the Zones of Thought are discussed in my reviews of those first two books. The concept was also used for the first time in the short work, “The Blabber,” which appears in this collection.

Another concept Vinge used to explore changes in future societies was the “bobble,” a stasis field that could be formed to trap its contents in suspended animation for years, centuries, or even millennia. This concept appears in The Peace War, “The Ungoverned” (which appears in this volume), and Marooned in Realtime.

Vinge’s work often explored societies that had embraced some form of libertarianism or anarchy, in which governments are not the dominant organizations, which allowed him to look at the issues of individual freedom and responsibility. These societies were frequently portrayed as a reaction to or result of disruptions like wars or natural disasters.

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

Every tale in this book is a good one. Even the shortest stories, which often rely on some sort of gimmick or hook, find some interesting twist or scientific principle that makes them stand out from the crowd despite their brevity. But it would be tedious to summarize each and every one of them here, so I will focus on the longer stories, and those that particularly stuck with me.

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The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge
The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

The book begins with “Bookworm, Run!” While not Vinge’s first sale, it is one of the first stories he wrote. It is brimming with ideas, including the impact of unlimited energy sources on the economy, a secret underground government facility so complex you need a computer to find your way through the labyrinth, and a simian, Norman, who has been boosted to human levels of intelligence by linking him to the Department of Defense computer network. Norman finds that he can access more information than anyone else imagined, and tries to escape. What he doesn’t realize is that the further he gets from his computer link, the less he can rely on his enhanced intelligence.

“The Peddler’s Apprentice,” co-authored with Joan D. Vinge, is a precursor to Vinge’s “bobble” stories, featuring an enigmatic salesman who spends centuries in suspended animation only to appear and meddle in whatever society that has emerged during his long sleeps. He is especially irritated to find the Earth trapped in stagnation by a world government afraid of change, and decides to upset the status quo. The story is told from the perspective of a simple young man who stumbles across the peddler, and is forever changed by that encounter.

“The Ungoverned” is a story from the “bobble” series, set in an era where the stasis fields have destroyed the governments of our time, and America is divided into a confused jumble of organizations (or lack of organizations). Wil Brierson is an officer in a protection company called the Michigan State Police who has been sent to assist clients on the midwestern plains threated by the bellicose and authoritarian Republic of New Mexico that has emerged in the south. The invaders know the area does not have a government, and assume that means they are without defenses. But the lack of an army does not mean that the locals are unarmed, and the invasion does not go as planned.

“Apartness” was Vinge’s first commercial sale, a story set in the wake of a world war that has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and offers an ironic look at what happens to colonies when the colonial powers are gone. It is a companion piece to “Conquest by Default,” which shows that same war-torn Earth invaded by humans from other stars. The invaders think they are being merciful to offer assimilation into their very different culture, but all it means is that the survivors of the world war will face a different kind of destruction.

“Gemstone” is a shorter piece, but one with an emotional resonance that has stuck with me for years. A young woman is sent to stay with her grandmother while her parents are on a weeks-long trip. But unlike her previous visits, she finds the house oppressive, and is disturbed by mysterious rocks in a terrarium near her room, brought back from an Antarctic expedition by her grandfather. Her grandmother had been supporting herself by selling uncut diamonds, which attracts the attention of some local thieves, and the story ends in a tragedy that reveals extraterrestrial mysteries.

The story “Just Peace,” co-authored with William Rupp, is a James Bond-esque tale of derring-do, with an agent from Earth being teleported to a colony world that is more interested in fighting for dominance than preparing for seismic disasters that loom in the near future. The fact that the agent is identical to another agent the colonists had murdered a short while before is just one of the aspects that makes this tale an interesting read.

The alien race in “Original Sin” is as horrifying as it is fascinating. They are extremely intelligent, held back only by their short lifespans, which come to a violent end when their offspring eat their way out of their bodies in a cannibalistic frenzy. Now a man has been hired to find a way to extend their lives, which could cause the aliens’ technological capabilities to expand and accelerate…and thereby threaten the existence of humanity.

“The Blabber” is my favorite Vinge story, and one of my favorite science fiction stories of all time. It is the first tale Vinge wrote using his Zones of Thought concept, and succeeds in recreating the fun and excitement of science fiction’s Golden Age. A young man, Hamid Thompson, works on an Earth colony entertaining visitors from beyond the galaxy who want to see how primitives behave in the Slow Zone. But other, more threatening visitors from beyond also arrive, and are interested in Hamid’s alien pet, the Blabber, a creature who resembles a cross between a dog and a seal, with uncanny mimicry abilities, and an intelligence that sometimes seems to be near human. The story is full of action and the revelation of mysterious destinies, and even features a chase involving flying carpets. The Blabber turns out to be a member of one of the most fascinating alien races I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and the ending leaves the reader wanting more.

“The Barbarian Princess” is a fun story that follows the adventures of a company traveling on a large barge between city-states and villages along the shores and islands that surround a largely unexplored continent. The society has technology roughly similar to that of 19th century Earth, held back by the planet’s lack of metals. The barge’s occupants make their money by trading, by publishing a science fiction magazine (which amusingly resembles John Campbell’s old Astounding), and by putting on a traveling circus. They find a young barbarian from the unexplored regions—a remarkable young woman named Tatja Grimm—and train her to portray an adventure hero from their magazine stories. But when they run afoul of the taboos of a superstitious village, that fictional portrayal might be the only thing that can save them from certain death.

“Fast Times at Fairmount High” was written in 2001, and follows the adventures of a group of San Diego high school students who are working on their final exam projects. It portrays a society already being transformed by advanced information technology, where people live in a world that mixes virtual reality with the physical world. While many stories of its type quickly become overtaken by real-world advances, this tale still feels fresh and possible after more than two decades. It offers a view of what the world might be in just another decade or two, a world on the cusp of Vinge’s singularity.

Final Thoughts

The Collected Works of Vernor Vinge is a fascinating introduction to Vinge’s fiction for someone who has not yet encountered his work, and presents an excellent array of Vinge’s shorter pieces, which was where he did some of his strongest work. There is plenty of thoughtful scientific speculation here, and no small measure of action and adventure. You generally find one of those elements or the other in a story, but here you get the best of both worlds.

I’d love to hear from readers regarding their favorite Vernor Vinge stories. There are certainly plenty of good ones worth discussing! icon-paragraph-end

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