In Vernor Vinge’s version of Southern California in 2025, there is a school named Fairmont High with the motto, “Trying hard not to become obsolete.” It may not sound inspiring, but to the many fans of Vinge, this is a most ambitious Â— and perhaps unattainable Â— goal for any member of our species.
Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist in San Diego whose science fiction has won five Hugo Awards and earned good reviews even from engineers analyzing its technical plausibility. He can write space operas with the best of them, but he also suspects that intergalactic sagas could become as obsolete as their human heroes.
The problem is a concept described in Vinge’s seminal essay in 1993, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which predicted that computers would be so powerful by 2030 that a new form of superintellligence would emerge. Vinge compared that point in history to the singularity at the edge of a black hole: a boundary beyond which the old rules no longer applied, because post-human intelligence and technology would be as unknowable to us as our civilization is to a goldfish.
The Singularity is often called “the rapture of the nerds,” but Vinge doesn’t anticipate immortal bliss. The computer scientist in him may revel in the technological marvels, but the novelist envisions catastrophes and worries about the fate of not-so-marvelous humans like Robert Gu, the protagonist of Vinge’s latest novel, “Rainbows End.”