Another change of pace today. Following on from the review of Vernor Vinge’s Collected Stories that I reprinted a couple of days ago, this is an interview I did with Vinge that was published in Bull Spec 7, Spring 2012. There was also a review of his novel The Children of the Sky, which I may reprint here later.
It is nearly 20 years since Vernor Vinge published A Fire Upon The Deep. It was his third novel. The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime had already marked him out as a hard sf writer worthy of serious attention, but it was A Fire Upon The Deep that really made a mark on the field, winning that year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel. It was a complex, richly imagined, fast moving novel that shifted focus between spectacular space battles and first contact with an alien race, the Tines, where personality and intelligence lie within the pack rather than the individual. Most significantly, what earned this novel recognition as one of the key works of what would become known as the new space opera was the concept of the Zones of Thought embedded within it: the cosmos is divided into shifting zones which set natural limits on the speed of travel and implicitly on the speed of thought. It was a concept that Vinge would explore further in A Deepness in the Sky (1999), set some 30,000 years before A Fire Upon The Deep (Vinge likes to play with big numbers, huge spans of time and space). The ideas implicit within these two novels clearly had a great attraction to both Vinge and his readers, but it is only now that he has returned to the setting a third time, with The Children of the Sky. It begins just two years after the events of A Fire Upon The Deep, barely an eye-blink on the sort of scale that Vinge usually likes to work, yet it is an unexpected sequel to such a wide-ranging novel, never once moving off planet. I review the new novel elsewhere in this issue, but first I talked to Vernor Vinge about the book.
I began by asking whether, when he wrote A Fire Upon The Deep, he had thought of it as a novel that might spawn sequels.
‘Probably, but in general, I don’t have an organized view of sequels. I usually think, “Oh sequels would be nice”, but without the steely resolve to ensure that they get written.’
How, then, did you come to write a sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep so long after the original?
‘Partly because of an unsuccessful attempt at such a sequel.
‘Around the turn of the century, I made a serious attempt to expand my novella, “The Blabber”, into a novel. This would have qualified as sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep (but set much later than The Children of the Sky). I wrote twenty to forty thousand words, but it was not going well. In retrospect — especially considering how difficult it was to write The Children of the Sky — I should not have given up so easily. I hope I can do something with the piece in the future.’
And why the delay?
‘Partly distraction by other things: very legitimately, my day job (teaching at San Diego State University)! However, I retired from that job in 2000. And there were several other writing projects, mainly short stories, but one novel, Rainbow’s End.’
Already, our discussion had raised a number of issues I wanted to pursue further, and I would come back to the difficulty in writing Children later, but first of all I wanted to talk more about “The Blabber”. First published in 1988 (so it actually precedes A Fire Upon The Deep) and included in Vinge’s Collected Stories, it is a beautifully constructed story that is clearly set within the universe of the Zones of Thought. But I don’t remember it as being in any way a sequel to Fire, so I wanted to find out where he’d been planning to take the story.
‘“The Blabber” takes places several thousand years after Fire and Children. In “The Blabber”, galactic distances and the passage of time have muted the turmoil caused by Blight and Countermeasure. Apparently, there had been an interstellar confrontation between the Tines and the Blight — and the Tines had suffered devastating defeat, with resulting histories demonizing them. (So it looks like there’s at least one novel-content of stuff between The Children of the Sky and “The Blabber”.)
‘In “The Blabber”, the character called Ravna Bergsndot is more than a descendent but less than a perfect mind-copy of the original Ravna. She obviously cares a lot for Hamid — who has some similarities to at least one romantic interest Ravna had had. (If one looks at “The Blabber”’ closely, there are other “almost continuing” characters.) My 2000 attempt at expanding this to novel length used “The Blabber” as the first few chapters, then follows these characters and the Blabber’s new Pack into the High Beyond. Their probable goal is to mend the damage of the past catastrophes.’
Why was it difficult to expand into a novel?
‘Actually, most of my novels feel undoable as I struggle along with the writing process. In this case, I succumbed to the temptation to jump ship.
‘I think this was because there were lots of other things to do, and I believed that a change of pace might do all my projects some good. I figured I could come back to Twice Stolen (a working title of the Blabber-based novel) at some later time.’
So how did the abortive attempt to write The Blabber, or I suppose I should say Twice Stolen, turn into The Children of the Sky? Particularly when, as you say, one was set considerably later than the other.
‘They were really entirely different projects. I had always had fun with the Tines and figured that writing more about them would be both doable and interesting.’
Returning to the point that Children was difficult to write, I had to ask: in what way? Was it more difficult than his novels usually are?
‘When the draft gets over one hundred thousand words, writer gratification is too delayed.
‘For a long time, I tried to limit the size of the novel by having only one viewpoint character. Many fine novels are written from a single viewpoint. In the 1980s, I myself wrote a novel (Marooned in Realtime) that had essentially a single viewpoint character. The strategy seemed to be working with this project — but in much the same way that some surgical interventions work to control obesity. Giving up on the single viewpoint strategy was very frustrating, but finally I had to do it.
‘In writing The Children of the Sky there was the added difficulty that I had several contending players each with his/her own motive, allegiance, knowledge — and the story action often changed these factors. Thus I was constantly fighting inconsistency brushfires. It can be especially irritating to write a great action scene or a hundred pages of adventure — and then realize that one of your characters would never play the role shown because that character had necessarily been exposed to some secret about another character. In the end I think I got these details right, often with intriguing solutions, but for a while the plot was a minefield for me.’
At one point during our discussion I asked if he was a slow writer, to which Vinge simply answered ‘Yes.’ But that was so emphatic that I had to pursue the issue further. Without wanting to turn this into a Paris Review type interview, I still found it fascinating to ask what made him a slow writer. Did he take a long time to develop an idea, for instance?
‘My idea development speed may be about average, but finally starting to write (or restarting the process) can be slow. Some writers complain about long-lasting writer’s blocks. By that terminology, I’ve had a writer’s block for 67 years.’
He then went on to say that: ‘Once under way, I reliably do 1500 words of rough draft per day.’ But his revisions might slow the pace somewhat: ‘I may rewrite more than some professionals, but I haven’t been able to make comparisons. (I notice from my file names that the draft count can get up to 9, but I think those are really just minor revisions, or redrafts addressing some particular issue.)’
In that case, when do you consider a book is done?
‘I normally have a list of concrete problems. When those have been solved (or determined to be unsolvable), I’m done. I’m fortunate that — except for certain egregious blunders – I’m quite fond of most of my stories.’
Given all that, therefore, are we in for a long wait before Twice Stolen, or indeed the novel that may come between The Children of the Sky and it?
‘Alas, I think there will be a long wait. I’m currently trying to decide on the topic of my next novel and — so far — near future ideas are ascendant.’
Is that because you relish the change of pace?
‘I look forward to it, but sometimes I wonder if that’s not just thinking that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.’
Or do you find the demands of writing far future and near future are not that different?
‘In most cases, near future has a lot of additional constraints. There is the danger that the work will read like a popular science magazine. More than ever, there is the danger that the work will be seriously dated (and perhaps laughably wrong), by the time it goes into print (or even before!).
‘On the other hand, if the author gets things right, the near future story can make more of an impression on the world.’
But a novel as far future as The Children of the Sky still resonates with the world in which it was written. I asked, for example, about an economic theme that I detected running through the book. It seems to include representatives of feudal, planned and dictatorial societies, with a capitalist model winning out in the end. Was that, I asked, in your mind as you were writing?
‘Of that list of possibilities, I think capitalism would win – though I wasn’t trying to hammer the point. (A Deepness in the Sky and especially Marooned in Realtime are more deliberately polemical.)’
In asking about the economic structure in the novel, I wasn’t considering it polemical in any way. (Though I am interested that you consider Deepness and Marooned to be polemical — what drove that?) But I do find economic structures in sf very interesting, and they are not really as common as all that.
‘On this point, I disagree. At least, I think sf has more economic content than most fiction genres (though my reading outside of fantasy and science fiction is too thin to make a strong case for my opinion.)’
What I’m trying to get at is how you set about building the social, political and economic structure of your world?
‘Here are some methods. (Note, I don’t mean to imply these necessarily lead to concepts the author believes — any more than a story about faster-than-light travel means the author believes that ftl is possible.)
‘Political and Social: Imagining what the biology of nonhuman lifeforms would necessarily do to the form of a tech civilization. My short story “Original Sin” is a fling at this.
‘Imagining what things would be like if some social or occupational or political niche were the model for everything. Pohl and Kornbluth did a lot of this. My story “Conquest by Default” (in which the only law is antitrust law) is a minor example of the method.
‘Economic: Some of the above, but also basing a story on some well-thought-out tract on economic issues. In my case, David Friedman’s book The Machinery of Freedom suggests a background for “The Ungoverned” and (off-stage) Marooned in Realtime.’
One of the interesting, perhaps curious, things about The Children of the Sky is that, although it so clearly belongs within the sequence of novels about the Zones of Thought, all the action takes place on Tines World. Actually, I noted in passing that there’s a map of the Zones of space at the beginning of the book even though no-one goes into space; but there is no map of Tines World though the book is full of journeys to and fro across the planet.
‘I have work sketches for Tines World that are about as detailed as the Zones of Space map. However, the Zones of Space map may look more detailed than it really is, since much of the detail is just based on the symmetries of a spiral galaxy! A world or continental map would immediately raise all sorts of peripheral issues that I don’t have enough information on as yet.’
Of course the Tines were one of the more attractive inventions in a novel, A Fire Upon The Deep, notable for its intriguing aliens. There are an awful lot of cats in science fiction but, if you discount Simak, not that many dogs. I wondered if Vinge was consciously trying to redress the balance?
‘No. I think most humans would have a doggy first impression of pack critters where the individual members had four legs and were about the size of Tines.’
What came first: the idea of an alien race structured around the pack, or the idea of a personality shared between multiple members?
‘The latter, though I always thought that I would implement it with an alien race.’
Do you think such a personality structure really could develop technologically in the way the Tines do?
‘Do you mean, could technology allow us to do something like this with Humans? I would say “yes”, though close binding is still beyond us. Loose-binding, especially with large groups, is almost here already!’
One of the interesting things about Children is the way that the multi-member personality disintegrates as we get into the tropics, but a new sort of personality takes over. At first this just looks like a mob, but as the novel develops you realise it is far more structured and nuanced than that. Where did this idea come from?
‘There are two main drivers:
‘I think that in the tropics much higher population densities would be possible (at least for low-tech or no-tech populations). Given the nature of Tines, high population density forces a mob- or choir-like mental style.
‘Because this world is in the Slow Zone, I couldn’t portray the resulting super-pack as a godlike intellect (even if its fringe members claim godhood for it). This was an interesting constraint, producing an entity that was less and more than the mind of a conventional temperate zone pack (4 to 8 members). In some ways I imagined the Tropical Choir to be like our Internet but with less-than-human participants. (This isn’t a strong analogy, because Choir networking was much more lossy and slow than our Internet.)’
It is also notable that one character who looks like an ally turns into an enemy (Nevil), and one character who looks like an enemy turns into an ally (Tycoon). Are you fond of such reversals?
‘I confess to a natural liking for the Tycoon trajectory — it fits my hope that the world is a place where cooperation is a win. The Nevil trajectory is ugly but plausible. I figure most readers see through Nevil from a long distance, but the foreshadowing was implicit. This may be because the pre-betrayal scenes were originally written while I was still trying to write the whole novel with just one viewpoint character, Ravna — and she was cluelessly innocent.’
As our exchange drew to a close, I found myself turning back to the question of sequels, especially as Vinge has littered Children with story strands that demand to be carried on after the end of the book: the approaching threat from space, the split in the human camp, the development of Tycoon’s commercial empire are all issues that remain unresolved. Was he really thinking ahead to another volume while writing the book? Or did it just develop that way?
‘I was in thrall to the commercial standards of our time, but those story details did seem to arise naturally. I hope that someday I can do something fun with all them.’
And like the novel, our conversation left many strands that could be pursued much further. But that must be for another time, for now: thank you, Vernor Vinge.