Vernor Vinge is a legendary and recently deceased sci-fi author. I’ve just finished listening to the first two books in the Zone of Thought trilogy. Both books are entertaining and culturally influential. The audio versions are high-quality.

A Deepness in the Sky is about two spacefaring human civilizations with clashing societal structures converging on a mysterious solar system where a third, alien spider civilization is undergoing an industrial revolution. This combination of high-tech spacefaring and low-tech steampunk or fantasy shows up in both books and is one of the most compelling and unique parts of Vinge’s work. It allows him to focus on depicting rapid technological change. This is surprisingly rare in sci-fi which mostly takes the Star Wars or Trek route of depicting advanced but static technology.

Vinge also introduces the idea of “programmer archaeology” in this book. After thousands of years of advanced civilization, the free-trading Qeng Ho have enough code and schematics in their archives to solve almost any problem. The challenge is finding the right piece at the right time. Searching through the archive is a full time job. From a 2024 perspective this is evocative of prompt engineering. LLMs are these massive inscrutable matrices that in some ways reflect all of humanity’s written knowledge but digging that knowledge out of them is a non-trivial skill.

Another element with a different shine in a post-LLM world is the collectivist Emergent’s automation. The Emergents repurposed a brain-rot pandemic into a mind control/enhancement tech which allows them to create semi-human semi-robot obsessive workers called Focused. This is explicitly not AI, which the book claims would be too rigid and un-creative, but this conceit is less plausible today. The alignment problems that the Emergents face with the Focused are inadvertently relevant to the obsessive but strangely human behavior of LLMs.

A Fire Upon the Deep is a loose sequel to a Deepness in the Sky with one crossover character. It also involves a low-tech alien civilization colliding with space-faring humans (and some talking plants). The low-tech alien civilization here is really cool. The aliens essentially live in an alternate history Earth where wolves became the dominant intelligent species instead of humans. They do this by leaning into pack cooperation, leading to a hybrid hive-mind/individualistic society where each person is a hive-mind pack of 3-8 wolves but each pack is separate from all the others. Vinge spends a lot of time gaming out the biology, economics, and politics of such creatures and it is awesome.

This book also has much more explicit discussion of and interaction with super-intelligent AI. Vinge thought deeply about super-human intelligence all his life, but he saw it as so all-encompassing that writing about it directly was either boring or impossible. So A Fire Upon the Deep constrains super-intelligence with a plot device called the Zones of Thought. These are concentric spheres radiating out from the center of the galaxy that allow for successively more powerful technology as you get further out. Super-intelligent AI is only possible in the furthest zone: the Transcend. Here’s how one character describes it

The [zones below the Transcend] are like a deep of ocean, and we the creatures that swim in the abyss. We're so far down that the beings on the surface—superior though they are—can't effectively reach us. Oh, they fish, and they sometimes blight the upper levels with poisons we don't even understand. But the abyss remains a relatively safe place. And just as with an ocean, there is a constant drift of flotsam from the top. There are things that can only be made at the Top, that need close-to-sentient factories—but which can still work down here.

In real life, we’ve already crossed many of the barriers that separate “slow zone” tech from the Beyond e.g real time natural language translation and hyper-efficient and tiny micro-processing.

My favorite part of both books is Vinge weaving stories through all of the economic and political implications of advanced technology being airdropped into steampunk or pre-industrial civilizations. Highly recommend both!

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