RE: Review of Vinge's Deepness in the Sky

Billy Brown (
Tue, 2 Mar 1999 15:38:02 -0600

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.

IMO, Vinge has accomplished a rather unusual feat with this book: he has taken a future considered wildly optimistic by most people, and shown it to be a dystopia. Perhaps he hopes to spur traditional SF fans to the kind of consideration you suggest.

> 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.)

I really can't see any way to achieve this kind of limited future without continuous intervention by a race of omnipotent super-beings (which, of course, is exactly the justification Vinge is using). There are just too many things that should exist, and don't. I find it hard to believe that humans can't design even the simplest nanotech, and I don't see any way to get such a hard limit on computer speeds.

> 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 agree. With the technology he allows, a solar system should easily be capable of supporting trillions of humans.

> 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?

IMHO, no. You can re-establish a 1930s-era tech base with one machine shop, a few hundred specialists, and a few thousand random people. Even with really big nukes, it is extremely difficult to cause enough damage to even approach that situation. A nuclear war of reasonable scale will usually cause only a modest loss of technology, lasting less than a generation.

> Now maybe growth rates were slower, though folks in the story
> didn't bother to note any dramatic differences in growth rates
> between places they'd traveled. And even if the economy only
> had a doubling time of one tenth the expected lifetime, then
> in a thousand human systems more than half of human economic
> power should reside in the single most advanced systems among
> them. Yet such a vast concentration of power was not noted
> in the story.

Good point. A major civilization should easily be able to dominate its neighbors. With lifespans of 200 - 500 years, it should be possible to establish interstellar governments over significant areas (you just need to keep travel times down to a modest fraction of a human lifetime).

> 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..

I think this whole setting is just a convenient set of excuses to allow him to have human characters in a far-future setting. I suppose I can understand that, considering how hard it would be to handle posthumans in a novel, but it reduces the works predictive power to just about nil.

Billy Brown, MCSE+I