Re: Review of Vinge's Deepness in the Sky

Wei Dai (
Tue, 13 Apr 1999 16:08:16 -0700

[This thread is from a month ago, but I just finished reading the book so I'm following it up now.]

On Tue, Mar 2, 1999 at 9:30:51PM +0000, Robin Hanson wrote:
>I find the idea of exploring a "depressingly limited future" very
>interesting and relevant. If one could paint a detailed enough
>picture of just how things could be so limiting, that could help
>us better evaluate our chances of being slowed down by such limits,
>and perhaps help us avoid such scenarios.
>So does Vinge present a plausible detailed picture? I'm not sure.
>Limits to software complexity were plausibly presented, and so I
>could buy the lack of AI or advanced automation. Though the story
>doesn't say so, I suppose complexity limits could also explain the
>life extension limits described. The failure to make substantial
>progress in physics seemed more arbitrary, though I suppose very
>subtle effects might remain hidden for millennia until the right
>clues were presented.
>More puzzling was the failure to achieve anything like nanotech.
>I suppose complexity limits could be behind this. In one case,
>a system with "a technology as high as Humankind ever attained"
>achieved something close to nanotech, and the dust our hero
>bought from them became a core element of all trader's starships,
>and the key to our hero's power. But I don't recall that system
>being noted for any other abilities to handle complexity. (It
>was particularly bad at life extension.)
>Perhaps most puzzling is the failure to use any significant
>fraction of the resources at each solar system. Human populations
>around a star are never more than "billions", and we see nothing
>like wholesale conversion of asteroids and comets. "Sooner or later
>[each system] ossified and politics carried it into a fall."

I think the central assumption Vinge used here is that no stable forms of social organization are possible in the Slow Zone, or if one does exist it's too difficult for Slow Zoners to discover or invent. Even the most stable organizational forms become increasingly unstable as a civilization develops technologically and economically, eventually suffering a catastrophic collapse. The Slow Zone governments must try to delay this collapse by restricting economic growth and research into destabilizing technologies, which would explain the slow growth rates and (combined with complexity limits) the lack of nanotechnology.

>These falls are very severe, often requiring re colonization from
>the outside, and otherwise seem to require rebuilding from
>scratch. This is much more severe than the fall of the Roman
>Empire, for example. Powerful weapons of war might explain
>this, but the worst weapons we see in the story are nukes. Are
>nuke wars really enough to destroy civilizations so thoroughly?

We also see biological weapons, which should be sufficient.

>The frustrating thing about using science fiction to think
>about these issues is not knowing whether the author thought
>they had good reasons to expect things described, whether they
>were just choices to make the story easier to tell, or whether
>the author just didn't even notice them. I suspect one big
>problem is that Vinge doesn't really believe in these limits.

He might not believe these limits, but I don't think he rules them out completely either.