The Singularity: in the book incarnated, or not?

Fire Upon the Deep(by Vernor Vinge) was published in (1992) and is his award (the Hugo in 1993, tied with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book) winning novel about “The Singularity” – personified in words through this book. See:

A Fire Upon the Deep

My comments are from a reader’s perspective halfway through the book – when I finish, I will discuss the questions I have and whether they were answered, and my overall impression/review.

I’m about halfway through the book, and I really, really hate animal races (esp. dogs – I have a dog, but only because of the kids – I don’t like dogs). I do like cats, but I don’t want to read about them. I do like the short of frondy Skroderiders – I seem to like plant/sea creatures better. They are the most fleshed out characters, and they are explained fairly well – quite amiable fellows, if a little short on memory, which I can certainly relate to.

But here is my problem. I do find the pack mentality thing of the major alien race a little interesting, if not very well explained. I wish he went into greater detail about how it worked. It seems like at times the shapes almost blend into one, but are they really a “pack”, with completely separate bodies, or are they attached with more than just minds? Anyone know? Guesses?

Someone did guess: “I think maybe, maybe, he is trying to describe a sort of primitive distributed intelligence. That is, their mind is something occurring in a collective sense. Any animal taken independently wouldn’t have enough brainpower to solve the complex problems they are faced with, but together they can. Of course, this is just my interpretation…”

And I want to know more about the zones of thought. Why are they seemingly arrayed horizontally in rings around the galactic plane (some say they could extend up or down, but they seem to be described as in the plane), and why is the Slowness at the core, and the Beyond further out, and Transcend further? He hasn’t yet explained the zones very well. Interesting concept, but I want more. Does he give more in another book, or is this it? Why the plane? Why not vertically. Why is the core slow, and not the outer rim? Research doesn’t reveal much. And I understand that the “zones” are the book’s conceptual framework of the Singularity, but what the bleep? How on earth is such a huge concept manifested in a few paragraphs about the content of the “Zones”?

One response was: “I think he uses it just as a device to allow FTL and to keep the transcendent Powers separated from the rest of the universe…” A good answer, but I want more – I always do. Why must the Transcendent Powers be kept separate? I can guess at some of the implications, but what are Vinge’s reasons? It’s his ball, keep it rolling.

And why, in the millions of years these races have lived, died out, transcended, are they still in one galaxy, the Milky Way? There are others. Why are there so many races here, and so much tech still available, or gone, and they are still in one place so to speak. And where’s his Singularity? Is the Transcend and powers it? Is that all to this “end of humanity.” Because it’s not the end, only a few races have achieved it, and this is how far in the future. And humanity, through this one remnant, is trying to make it only now? I thought it was much more “imminent?”

According to the Wiki article on the book Vinge says: “Vinge has often expressed an opinion that realistic fiction set after the development of superhuman intelligence — an event that he calls the Singularity and considers all but inevitable — would necessarily be too strange for a human reader to enjoy, if not impossible for a human writer to create. To sidestep the issue, he turns the Singularity sideways from time into space, postulating that the galaxy has been divided (possibly by some unknown super-technology in the distant past) into ‘zones of thought.'”

I think that’s sort of a cop out – that the reader is too “stupid” to understand. And worse, that he can’t write about it? It’s too “impossible?” Why develop an idea, and then wimp out and say “I can’t write about it – it’s too hard?” Why not give us a try? I would like to know more, and to simply bypass it with a comment about it being so strange that I wouldn’t enjoy/understand it is questionable. And the Wiki site sets out the “zones,” but without much more detail than the book gives. I’ve searched interviews, but no more information can I find.

And then there’s his usenet – which is now obsolete, as also noted by an article on Vinge in NNDB, and even he admits it’s hard to write a sequel to something that is no longer relevant.

One answer stated: “[we] still use newsgroups. Check out sci.math.research, sci.physics, rec.arts.sf.written, … Of course, eventually they will morph into something else. I think this is just another example of the truth of the statement that science fiction is really about the present. Vinge as a computer scientist and SF writer was projecting the future of the Internet, AI research, etc. and I wonder how much of AFutD is him working with the issues in comp sci in the early 1990s.” Very true answer I think, and the most relevant one on this part. That’s the problem I’ve seen time and time again – writers writing about the near future, or about near future/current tech, which is obsolete as soon as it’s written – just like my computer is as soon as I’ve bought it. When you write about current the and make large postulates from it, you risk the death of the idea, before it can be resolved, or even explored. Now we have to re-envision parts of the Singularity (see my previous post on the Future of the Singularity.)

The other point I have is the communications relay – they make a point early on that Relay has a clear line of sight, which allows for something like 30% of the sky, which indicates to me (an untrained reader) that he is relying on direct radio type transmitters – indeed in the novel he mentions radios and transmitters. And there is a lot of talk about bandwidth, and overuse, and “hogging” it by the Old One. Is that still a concern today? I don’t hear much about it – in the early days, people would complain on the newsgroups, etc., about bandwidth, but no one does anymore. Have we moved past that?

An answer given to me was “FuTD was written in 1992 when usenet was popular. I think Vinge used that as a model. I don’t have a problem with a relay. It was a good literary device to set up the character. But, if you have some sort of radiation being used to communicate, it is reasonable to assume it will dissipate over distance and need boosting. Also, we do have bandwidth problems today – called capacity problems. In some cities response time accessing a Web site can slow down around 8:00 in the morning, right before lunch, and right after lunch. There are also some users who hog the Internet by downloading huge videos.” Chris from group.

I guess I’m interested in these questions as Vinge sees them, not as others have interpreted them or whether or not they are no longer necessary. As I wrote earlier about his current concepts of the big S, they seem to have changed, but he is reluctant to admit the extent I think.

But I’m interested in what he thought back then. When he wrote FUTD. What was he thinking? What were his intentions – I know he says the Singularity is too complex for us to understand, but I don’t want that – if he’s going to create something, and write and talk about it extensively, then he should better well have a darn good explanation of it, and it’s effects on people and society.

And why is it slower at the Core? Is there something about the Core that would create that effect? Any scientific basis? Or is that merely a literary device for his Zones?

I guess, what I want, when I ask all these questions about books, is what was going on in the author’s mind. What were his intentions, and why did he write it that way?

I sort of enjoy the story, once I get around the dogs, but I am really disappointed in the characters. They are so one-dimensional. Not very fleshed out, IMO. Esp., Pham and what’s her name (see – I can’t even remember her name) – why were they not suspicious at all in the beginning – later on they start to wonder, but why do they believe all that the boy feeds them, and never question in the beginning the motives of “Mr. Steel.” They rush off to the rescue, and yes, they “think” there might be something on the ship to help them, but it was a slim idea, with no real basis. And they swallow, in the beginning, everything; hook line and sinker, never wondering about the other side, until over 1/2 way through the book, and they still don’t think that the Woodcarvers might be okay.

All in all, so far, I’m disappointed in what is supposed to be a landmark book – and not because it’s already dated, but because it has weak characters, weak motivation, and seems a vehicle for his poorly fleshed out ideas. I’ve read quite a number of interviews, and he is very good at dancing around the point and not “coming clean.” In Rainbows Endinterviews, he danced about Rabbit, and never gave any indication about what he/it might be, and some other details. In RE, Rabbit seems like a device to be able to do anything he can’t have his characters do – in other-words, a deus ex machina part. I know writers like to keep secrets, but the book’s been out a while, and people have questions.

And he has said he doesn’t plan to write any more space operas, tech stuff, etc. In other words, it seems he didn’t like what happened to his “Singularity” idea and doesn’t want to go that route again. In many ways he reminds me of interviews with cyberpunk pioneers when they say they will always be associated with cyberpunk, even though they’ve moved beyond it. It will be on their gravestone, just as the Singularity will be on Vinge’s.

But if you’re going to have grandiose ideas, that’s what may happen, and if you try and predict the future, you may be proven wrong. And I think, IMVHO, that you should have the guts to back up your ideas, and flesh them out, rather than just say it’s too complex. If it’s too complex, then how did he think it up? How did he come up with the idea, or “discover it.” Is he the only one bright enough to grasp it? It’s insulting to the reader, IMO.

Okay, done ranting – just disappointed I guess – I always want more from my authors – fully fleshed characters, and ideas that are given their due, esp. when they are fresh, new and exciting. Give the reader something to really hang their hat on and ponder – not enough information leaves you flailing around – but if you give enough to the reader, and believe in the reader, without giving it all away, you let their imagination wander, still wanting more, and always excited.

So, will I find that I’m just not a good enough reader to enjoy what is so highly touted, or that I’m right – that the book didn’t stand the test of time – always a possibility in SF?

So, up later: Did Vinge Fulfill His Promise to Me? (after I finish it).


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