Minicon 30 Guest of Honor Vernor Vinge


by Jim Frenkel

Among serious science fiction writers, Vernor Vinge is considered one of the most highly respected writers in the field. For years, professional writers and editors would walk around saying things like, "Boy, that Vernor Vinge is really terrific. Its really a shame that more readers havent discovered his books."

And for a number of years, this was quite true. Vernor Vinge was better known in the late 1960s and early 1970s than he was in 1983. His debut novel, GRIMMS WORLD, was quite highly regarded for its imaginative premise, well-worked out science, evocative depiction of life on a planet with an unusual geology, and its general "sense of wonder". He had written a number of intriguing and effective short stories for John W. Campbell's Analog. In the second half of the 1960s, he was definitely a young hard-SF writer to watch. His second novel, THE WITLING wasn't published until 1975, and by 1976 he had stopped writing SF, concentrating instead on his career in academe first as a mathematician and then, with the development of computer science as field independent of mathematics, as a computer scientist. He credits the fact that he had came to formal computer learning rather late as something of an advantage -- he didn't know what was "impossible".

While Vernor was learning and teaching computer science, his then wife, Joan D. Vinge, was starting her own science fiction career, beginning in 1973. When she garnered a sizable advance for THE SNOW QUEEN in 1978, Vernor decided to give SF another try. The early '70s were a relatively down time in the field, but now it seemed there was more money to be made, as a readership that had been largely discouraged by the predominance of doom-laden stories in the late '60s and early '70s came back to SF, eager for fresh new stories.

He wrote TRUE NAMES in 1980, and it proved to be a turning point in his career. Its first appearance, in Dell's Binary Star #5, was a finalist for both the Nebula and the Hugo awards. Marvin Minsky spoke at length about True Names in his Nebula Awards banquet address in New York in 1981, and many people in both the science fiction and scientific communities have since cited it as perhaps the single most seminal work of fiction and predictive fact in the development of what we now call cyberspace.

Vinge was nominated for a Hugo award for his next novel, THE PEACE WAR, published in 1984. Despite great popularity and widespread critical praise, it lost to Orson Scott Card's even more popular ENDER'S GAME. Likewise, in 1986, the sequel to THE PEACE WAR, MAROONED IN REALTIME, lost to SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD. He didn't write another novel until A FIRE UPON THE DEEP, published in 1992, and the development of his novelistic skills that was evident in the two previous novels had clearly taken another leap in this new work. He never said anything about it, but by this time Vernor must have been wondering what it took to win a Hugo Award. This new novel was one of the most highly acclaimed hard-SF novels of the new decade. Filled with ideas as few SF novels are, it impressed a wide range of critics, and readers were dazzled by the combination of vast scope, high-concept SF ideas, riveting action, sharply limned characters, and masterful narrative control. Vinge was in San Francisco for the World SF Convention, ConFrancisco, sitting in the front row where all the nominees and their guests were sitting during the Awards ceremony. He wasn't the most surprised winner that night -- Janet Kagan probably won that kudo -- but he may have been the most relieved and pleased. He had worked for four years on this book, and his merit was finally recognized. Unquestionably, his recognition was delayed by the fact that due to the demands of his academic career, he can't write full-time. But the Hugo Award will forever mark Vernor Vinge as a great SF writer, and A FIRE UPON THE DEEP as one of the masterpieces of the field.

If you like hard SF adventure, pick up one of his books and start to read it. But you'd better set aside a few hours, or you might miss appointments, as well as sleep, as you marvel at the wonders of his science fictional universe. If you see him in the halls or at a party, ask him questions about his work. He is an articulate and enlightening person who carefully tries to understand the craft of science fiction, and is always working to improve his considerable skills. You won't see Vernor Vinge holding forth; he's modest about his achievements, and lets his prose speak for him. Go to his reading, and maybe you'll be able to get him to talk about his work in progress. That's REALLY fun.


David Dyer-Bennet <>
Last modified: Tue Jul 4 00:23:36 1995