Tor, 2006, 364 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85684-9
A lot of people were waiting for this book, with good reason: Over the years, Vernor Vinge has become a visionary with a new brand of future, a prophet for the Singularity. In the SF field, few will dispute his success: His last two novels both won the Hugo Award, and so did two of his novellas in 2002 (“Fast Times in Fairmont High”) and 2004 (“The Cookie Monster”). At this point in time, any new story by Vinge is an event. With Rainbows End, he doesn’t disappoint.
While it shares common elements with “Fast Times in Fairmont High”, Rainbows End is a reworking of the earlier novella’s themes, using the same setting and characters, but digging much deeper in the details. (Readers already familiar with the earlier story may experience some disorientation as the two appear to take place in closely placed parallel universes.) The first chapter of Rainbows End is a little gem of pace-setting: In a few short paragraphs, the stakes are raised again and again: Someone out there has developed effective mind-control technology and so the European secret service hire a very shadowy entity called “Rabbit” to track down and eliminate the treat. There’s one small hitch, though: The guy ordering the hit is the same one who’s developing the technology… and “Rabbit” is definitely more than he appears to be.
But as it turns out, this global framework is just there to allow Vinge to go back to Fairmont High School, and show us the wonders of his barely pre-Singularity future. The year, improbably enough, is just 2025 —but already everything is taking off. Some (but not all) debilitating diseases can be cured, high-school students can access manufacturing capabilities still beyond the reach of today’s governments, overlaid realities are far more popular than the un-augmented world, fine-grain wireless connectivity is everywhere and there just may be something artificial lurking in the channels of the global communication network…
And yet, despite its considerable ambitions, Rainbows End is about a small group of characters. There’s Robert Gu, an unpleasant man rescued from the abyss of Alzheimer’s just in time to give us contemporary readers a taste of a future experiences for the first time. There’s Miri Gu, his grand-daughter, an ambitious teenager who’s about to get in deep trouble. There’s Juan Orozco, the prototype of a teenage nerd fully exploiting the resources at his disposition. Then there’s Alice and Bob Gu, (how fitting for a computer scientist to name two characters Alice and Bob… I kept expecting Eve to eavesdrop) just waiting to be involved in the plot as the military is called to the rescue…
Many so-called SF novels try to give you a good dose of future shock, but Rainbows End actually delivers. For one thing, it’s set in a near-enough future that the tech on the ground often looks like better versions of current prototypes. For another, Vinge manages to cram an awe-inspiring density of ideas, concepts and eyeball kicks in a relatively slim but dense volume. I hope you’re up in your Google and Wikipedia skillz before attempting this book, because Vinge’s future is in large part a vision of massively collaborative computing: small entities, all contributing a tiny part to something far bigger than themselves. Computing capacity allows real-time virtual overlays through special contact lenses (I want my Epiphany OS!) and a substantial part of the job market seems to belong to people who can do stuff for others. Naturally, themes of identity become integral to the entire experience, as virtual presences can be shadowed, altered or even completely taken over.
Reading Rainbows End taps onto the main vein of Science Fiction thrills. It’s like taking big gulps of ideas and experiencing the sugar rush of new concepts. Late in the novel, a military action takes on a radically new form that both trivializes a lot of the current vogue of military SF and momentarily gives us a glimpse into what true informational war may become. At a time where young punks like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are the living emblems of the new information-dense SF, it’s amusing to see Vinge (who’s near retirement age) being able to out-hip his younger colleagues with cutting-edge work.
Even better: Vinge is smart enough to balance his universe with doses of humour and horror: For all the neat things that Vinge keeps on throwing in the air, his future is one that thrives on sink-or-swim competition, along with terrible new weapons and dumb ideas written large. One of the novel’s most darkly amusing scenes (for “hair-raising” values of amusing) is a take-off on destructive scanning techniques consisting in digitalizing a library by shredding its books and deep-scanning the resulting “shredda”. Yikes.
Yet, for all my enthusiasm for Rainbows End (and make no mistake: I think it already belongs on the Hugo Awards ballot), it’s hardly a perfect novel. After the continuous shocks of the first half, the story seems to lose its way shortly after the midpoint, ultimately settling for a scattering of sub-plots that don’t always mesh harmoniously with one another. It also becomes apparent, as the novel settles to a conclusion, that far too many threads are left dangling: Indeed, Vinge has stated that a sequel in in the work. Much as I usually prefer singleton works, I really can’t wait to see what’s next. (On the other hand, this is the second almost-fabulous novel in a year, after David Marusek’s Counting Heads, to loses points for setting up an unannounced sequel.)
Vinge is also known as a fairly hard-core techno-libertarian, and as a passport-carrying Canadian, I’m just bound to have problems with some of his basic assumptions. Vinge is far more bullish on free-market economics than I am: Like many libertarian ideas, his usually make abstraction that actual people are involved. In this context, there are a number of ideas in Rainbows End that I’d like to kick around in a context that allows for a touch more oversight and accountability.
But debating ideas like this is a huge chunk of what’s fun and fresh with Rainbows End. Forget about most of the other books in the “Science Fiction” section: This is the one you’re looking for. It’s SF for this decade: a dangerous cocktail of fun and speculation, wrapped up in good style. Vernor Vinge is back, and the wait has been worth it.