Book Review: Rainbows End (2006)

What is it that makes a person like one book and dislike a similar one? That imponderable arose when I read Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.

I recently praised how Charlie Stross explored the Singularity in Glasshouse. Well, Vernor Vinge is not only credited with popularizing the concept, it has been a common theme in his own science fiction. That holds true for Rainbows End, although it actually focuses on a transition period between today and the Singularity. Yet while I liked Glasshouse‘s exploration of a potential post-Singularity universe, I can’t really say the same for Vinge’s look at a potential route there.

Robert Gu is a focal point of most of the plotlines in Rainbows End, set in 2025, Gu is 75 and suffered from Alzheimer’s. He is among those with a form of the disease for which a “cure” exists. Moreover, he is lucky enough that his other physical ailments are also treatable, leaving him not only looking far younger but with much younger physical abilities. As he recovers, he lives with his son’s family in San Diego. But despite regaining his faculties, Gu, a world-renowned poet, seems to have lost his muse.

And Gu is regaining his senses in an entirely different world. Virtually everyone “wears” — their clothes are filled with microprocessors and software that gives them high bandwidth connections to the digital information stream, information they view with the contacts in their eyes. People can tailor how and from what perspective they see things and even send digital versions of themselves to other parts of the globe to meet and interact with others or simply observe.

Yet this doesn’t mean the world is a utopia. Chicago was destroyed in a war and the world has survived a bioterror plague. Security and military services throughout the world — of which both Gu’s son and daughter-in-law are members — focus on trying to prevent the next “Great Terror,” be it state-sponsored or terrorists. The same cameras that make different viewpoints available to everyone also means surveillance is ubiquitous. And every computer chip has something built in by the security services. All this sets the scene for Vinge to pursue a variety of plotlines.

One of his main themes is the generational impact of technological change. Much like today, youngsters like Gu’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Miri, are particularly adept with wearables and using and manipulating digital data because they grew up doing so. Their parents’ generation knows how to use the equipment, although they may not always be quite as proficient or innovative. Finally, Gu’s generation struggles just to adapt. He, like others, is sent to school for remedial courses in how to interface with, act and interact in this digital data world.

Vinge explores both the benefits and disadvantages to society from this technological change. Wearables and authentication procedures can be corrupted, allowing someone to assume control of the digital version of another person. As result, the risk exists that the digital version of the person with whom you are dealing may not actually be that person. Or they may have assumed an entirely different persona, not revealing who they really are. Likewise, wearables give users instant access to masses of information without moving a finger. Yet this has led to an effort to digitize all the world’s libraries and shred the books so the knowledge in them will be instantaneously available. Underlying the entire story is the potential threat of biotechnology. Someone is working to modify a biological virus which makes infected persons unwittingly respond to a stimulus transmitted electronically, whether that response be buying something or killing someone.

Rainbows End interweaves and examines each of these ideas and more. Perhaps that is the problem. There may be just too much going on around Gu’s efforts to adjust to his medical and technological resurrection. The efforts to digitize the libraries ties in to the bioterror plotline. The ideas of societal change range from how it affects one-on-one relationships to “belief circles,” networks of individuals who share common ideas or beliefs, including some that create and interact via creatures reminiscent of Pokemon. The library and bioterror plots also introduce the potential of a self-sufficient artificial intelligence.

Undoubtedly, Vinge has painted a potential route to the Singularity that is full of both promise and dread. Yet I, for one, tended to get lost sorting out the mundane from the significant and the purpose of certain characters or plotlines. Moreover, key plotlines appear to have been left intentionally unresolved to leave the door open for a sequel or more. As a result, Rainbows End ultimately left me dissatisfied.

In the modern world, success [as a nation] came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End

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