Rainbows End

by Vernor Vinge

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2006
ISBN: 0-312-85684-9
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 364

Buy at Powell's Books

After a seven-year hiatus since his last novel, Vinge returns in Rainbows End to the setting of his Hugo-winning novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High." The plot is a coming of age story with a spy plot in the background (but a rather laid-back one). At the start and end of the story, Vinge tries to increase the tension with a flurry of complications, double-agents, and hidden identities, but most of the book is a technology tour with the plot as an excuse to push the characters through Vinge's world.

The setting is the near future, just a few decades from now, but much farther down the accelerating curve of technological growth. Ubiquitous computing has arrived, everyone sees a computer-mediated world and is constantly on-line and interacting with wearable computers, and instant communication throughout the world is normal and expected. Teenagers have a huge advantage, having grown up with the technology. Adults struggle to learn fast enough to keep up. And terrorism, propaganda, and bioweaponry have become more common, more dangerous, and more subtle.

Enter Robert Gu, an elderly poet who was severely disabled by Alzheimer's. A new experimental cure was successful, and rejuvination was even more successful; Robert hit the genetic jackpot and ended up looking like he was eighteen again. He has, however, lost his poetic gift, has acquired a new and unwanted talent for math and engineering, and has to go back to a special education class at the local high school. He's entangled in a fight to save the local college library from destructive digitization and from there drawn into a larger threat.

Vinge spends many pages, most of the middle of the book, lovingly describing ubiquitous computing, the implications for social interaction and for substance versus computer-mediated appearance, and the way constant high-bandwidth connectivity and visual overlays can be used to create new crosses between on-line gaming and virtual organizations. To give him credit, the technology is refreshingly free of the standard cyberpunk mistakes. Intrusions and system compromises are handled reasonably and with some nice touches, such as treating protection of one's systems as a component of personal hygiene. There's some handwaving, but nothing I found that egregious.

The trouble comes instead from the tone. Vinge is consistently, aggressively optimistic about the world and the potential of technological growth and, despite leaving prominent markers in the story, populates the book with characters who seem blissfully unaware of the dangers of this world. This is a world where at least one US city has been nuked by terrorists, there are constant secret raids against countries creating weapons both conventional and electronic, and identity theft has escalated to a level near mind control, and yet the characters in this story are some of the least suspicious and least fearful characters I've seen in near-future SF. I suppose this is a straight-line projection of the way that people currently treat their home systems, but right now viruses just slow things down and result in annoying Internet blockages. They don't blow up cites or take over one's social interactions. The level of societal fear and discomfort seems entirely out of whack with the history of Vinge's world. The government reaction to some of the climatic events of the book is so understated and restrained as to be nearly unbelievable to me.

A similar sort of blind optimism seems to apply to character growth, and alas Vinge still has some of the characterization problems that I noticed in A Fire Upon the Deep. Robert starts out as both ignorant and obnoxious, striking out at his family and his would-be friends and hurting people just for the sense of personal control it gives him. Since this is telegraphed early as a coming of age story, you know this is going to get better over the course of the book. But Robert simply gets better, with very little reason or justification given in the story. His character is defined to go from hurtful to honorable, and so that's what he does; one gets little sense from the story for why the events of the book produce this change. I think all the ingredients are present in the story for Robert's personality-changing experiences, but Vinge never shows them to us in enough depth, doesn't quite glue them together, and rarely shows enough of what's going on inside Robert's head to make the transformation feel real. Instead, I came away with the feeling that the Robert at the end of the book is the real Robert and he started the book having a bad hair day, which was clearly not Vinge's intention.

Rainbows End is, in this respect, sadly typical of classic idea-driven SF. The main point is to show off a neat world and give us a sense of the conflicts that it could give rise to. The characters exist to move through the world and show it off and are otherwise wooden, shallow, or not clearly motivated. The motivation of the primary villain of the book could have been taken out of a catalogue of stock comic-book villain motivations: #4, villain tries to take over world because he thinks he could run it better. And the places where Vinge could have broken the mold and shown truly original characters are left oddly dangling; the subplot of Rabbit, for instance, is left frustratingly incomplete in a way that feels less like intentional ambiguity and more like Vinge failing to come up with a good reveal and thus deciding to cut the storyline off. The subplot around Alice likewise goes mysteriously nowhere.

The technology and imagry is occasionally quite pretty, and Robert does get some strong emotional moments (albeit cliched) by the end of the book, but it just didn't come together at sufficient depth for me. Karl Schroeder handles many of the same ideas with more emotional depth, more convincing characters, and even better set pieces in Lady of Mazes, and Schroeder understands and grapples with the impact and complexities of his advanced technology. Vinge stops here at "won't it all be wonderful." It might be, but when that sentiment is simply asserted against a contradictory backdrop, it rings hollow.

One final note: Vinge, probably in an effort to match the current web avant-garde, represents person-to-person silent messaging (sming) using pseudo-XML. No font change or typographical assistance, just:

Jerry --> Juan: <sm>What did we miss, Juan?</sm>

(including the two separate hyphens in the "arrow"). This is the sort of cute idea that the editor should have talked the author out of. Whatever the merits of XML as an input language for computers, there's a reason why people who write lots of XML often use editors that recognize and color it: XML tags scattered into regular text are visual noise, hurt the normal reading flow, and keep confusing the eye between the markup and the text. Long conversations are written this way, making them more difficult to read than was necessary and leaving me wondering why the characters see properly formatted glowing letters but the readers are subjected to Vinge's "my first XML application" raw markup. It was amusing in an eye-rolling sort of way once; by halfway through the book, when <sigh/> tags show up, I wanted to send Vinge a copy of Erik Naggum's rant on why SGML sucks.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-03-30

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