Rainbows Endby Vernor Vinge Published 03 Apr 2007
|Publisher||Tor Science Fiction|
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Robert Gu is a recovering Alzheimer's patient. The world that he remembers was much as we know it today. Now, as he regains his faculties through a cure developed during the years of his near-fatal decline, he discovers that the world has changed and so has his place in it. He was a world-renowned poet. Now he is seventy-five years old, though by a medical miracle he looks much younger, and he’s starting over, for the first time unsure of his poetic gifts. Living with his son’s family, he has no choice but to learn how to cope with a new information age in which the virtual and the real are a seamless continuum, layers of reality built on digital views seen by a single person or millions, depending on your choice. But the consensus reality of the digital world is available only if, like his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri, you know how to wear your wireless access—through nodes designed into smart clothes—and to see the digital context—through smart contact lenses.
With knowledge comes risk. When Robert begins to re-train at Fairmont High, learning with other older people what is second nature to Miri and other teens at school, he unwittingly becomes part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to use technology as a tool for world domination.
In a world where every computer chip has Homeland Security built-in, this conspiracy is something that baffles even the most sophisticated security analysts, including Robert’s son and daughter-in law, two top people in the U.S. military. And even Miri, in her attempts to protect her grandfather, may be entangled in the plot.
As Robert becomes more deeply involved in conspiracy, he is shocked to learn of a radical change planned for the UCSD Geisel Library; all the books there, and worldwide, would cease to physically exist. He and his fellow re-trainees feel compelled to join protests against the change. With forces around the world converging on San Diego, both the conspiracy and the protest climax in a spectacular moment as unique and satisfying as it is unexpected.
"Rainbows End" Reviews
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.
On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.
While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).
Rainbows End won the Locus Sci-Fi (as well as the Hugo) in 2007. I first heard about it on the Accelerating Future blog where Vinge is somewhat revered.
When I started my Locus quest I made this my second port of call (after Accelerando ) because it sounded like my cup of tea. I think I would have enjoyed the book which came second that year ( Glasshouse ) more.
I wanted to like Rainbows End . I really did try to like it. I thought for the first half of the book that I might just actually end up liking it. But I didn’t.
What frustrates me most about Rainbows End is that I’m not even certain why we didn’t gel.
The world building is top-notch – plausible and convincing, thoroughly detailed, interesting and original, memorable, etc – all qualities I normally laud.
I know it can’t be just because the protagonist is a grating grouch. I’ll admit that I spent most my read hoping he’d fall down an open manhole, but I’ve enjoyed other books with even less likeable leads (Donaldson - Thomas Covenant ?).
And it’s not that the protagonist was old – I’m not ageist – I love a good silver-haired sleuth! (King - Insomnia ?)
Could it be that the plot sort of fizzled and drifted into a faux-thriller mystery with a bunny? Maybe.
Or that the supporting cast are utterly forgettable? Perhaps.
Was it because the story lacks anything close to a true emotional hook? Could be.
None of these factors on their own would be enough to put me off a book, but all of them together stopped me from enjoying the wonderful ideas that kicked this book off.
The only reason I can’t outright 1-star the book is that I’m not sure it’s entirely Rainbows End ’s fault. Have you ever had that feeling, when you take an instant dislike to somebody? It’s out of character and you’re probably just having a bad day, but you can’t shake your first impression that this guy is a thoroughbred douche? And you feel bad for being so judgemental, so you end-up being nicer to this douche than you probably should be? Yeah. This is like that.
I think my favorite idea here (and it's one that completely irrelevant to the plot) is the notion of fiction inspired augmented reality overlays of real locations. Minus the tech-speak - that means glasses which make all of London look like Ankh-Morpork, or turn Windsor Castle into Hogwarts, etc. So the grouchy old poet - that was an image my mind could run with!
I've since read The Snow Queen by Vernor's ex-wife, Joan Vinge. I didn't get along with that either. Ah well... my search for a good sci-fi author beginning with V goes on... now where did I put that Verne omnibus..?
After this I read: Anathem
A Review Wherein I Postulate The End of Humanity:
...but first the boring stuff:
Ideas ideas ideas ideas ideas ideas :]
Writing, characterization, plot, and dialogue :[
Basically, the plot focus is all wrong. It's incredibly domestic. If plots were pokemon, this one would involve a Magikarp and a Gyrados... and focus on the Magikarp.
I mean dang, look at that BAMF.
Basically, Robert Gu, an old poet with Alzheimer's, has his youth and mind restored by medical science. Unfortunately, his poetical genius is lost somewhere in the restoration and his attempts to get it back embroil him a larger plot involving Mind Control and international intelligence. Alas, this more interesting plot tends to play second fiddle to the family drama Robert experiences with his son, daughter-in-law and, in particular, his granddaughter. It's never compelling. As a traditional story - i.e. a character arc - the story isn't well developed. Robert starts off as a very mean character and suddenly just sorta becomes... not mean. It all takes a backseat to the IDEAS.
So you know what? Failings explained. 3 / 5 stars given. Justice done. Let's move on to the FUN STUFF. The IDEAS:
Rainbows End represents our current society accelerated 20-30 years into the future, and I'd wager a crisp tenner against a dozen homemade donuts that it's more accurate than not.
For example, Vinge predicts that electronics will be woven into clothes and contact lenses. The most techno-savvy (i.e. primarily youngins) control these 'Epiphany' computers via gesture while older people must resort to the more primitive keyboard. Well, I actually once worked in an e-textile lab and while our explorations were simplistic (one of the grad students designed a pair of pants that analyzed your leg movements to guess what type of dance you were doing), e-textiles are a natural evolution of mobile computing.
Combine this with various virtual reality initiatives (Facebook's Oculus Rift, Steam's HTC Vive, Sony's Playstation VR being the three frontrunners) and the likes of google glass, and it's looking like the ubiquity of mobile electronics will continue unabated, not just in terms of adoption and usage but invasiveness, too. Augmented reality overlays anyone? I'll be pleased as plum pie when physical stop signs are replaced by windshield AR.
But what does this all mean?
Well, a major theme of Rainbows End is how such technology must invariably lead to the death of privacy. And aren't we there already?
Only the nuttiest of people believe there's anything close to privacy these days. Edward Snowden heyyyy? Sony, Target, Kickstarter getting hacked? Ashley Madison? Panama Papers? Those annoying Amazon ads that you might well be looking at right now, showing you the last product you looked at on their website? Or how about when the Ukrainian gov't used cell-phone triangulation to text warnings to people who were within a certain radius of a demonstration/riot? I like to put myself in the mindset of people there. Pocket vibrates. Fella's thinking, "Oh man, I bet it's that cute girl I've been wanting to talk to!" Hahahaha NOPE. It's a text from her BIG BROTHER.
Rainbows End also explores what I call "the acceleration of change." When I jog, I sometimes listen to a podcast called Radical History. In the episode on the dropping of the atomic bomb, the historian talked about how the rapid introduction of aircraft prevented military leaders from understanding how to properly use them. When it came to men-on-horses and infantry, military tactics were well understood and war could be conducted in a relatively sane method. But all of a sudden, you had this new technology. Clearly it was powerful - a real game-changer. But how did you utilize that power in the most effective and humane manner?
At first, the idea was tactical bombing. You'd target the actual soldiers. But the precision wasn't there. So a few strategists came up with a brilliant new idea: strategic bombing! You could utterly destroy a major enemy city. The death and destruction would be SO GREAT that the civilians would lose all will to fight and would (somehow?) force their government to surrender.
The idea was we'd have some dense, horrible destruction right at the beginning to spare us all from a much longer war. It sorta made sense. Obviously this didn't happen. But at the time who was to know?
The same such conundrum is now true with regards to modern technology. Cellphones, the internet, genetic manipulation, drones/robots, etc. We're making use of these, sure, but are we doing it the right away? Is technology outpacing our ability to guide its usage?
I'd guesstimate that the amount society changed from 2000 to 2015 is probably about the same it changed from 1970 to 2000. And that in turn was the same amount of change from, say, 1775 to 1850. Consider, for example, that the same weapons used in the American revolutionary war (1776) were essentially the same used in the American civil war (1865). One hundred years and many soldiers were still using front-loaded muskets! Can you even IMAGINE the weapons that will be used in a hundred years? Meanwhile, the Romans wielded the steel gladius from 4th century BC to 3rd century AD. A POINTED METAL STICK. FOR SIX HUNDRED YEARS. HOLY CRAP.
So that's what I call the "acceleration of change." It's kinda like how the universe continues to expand at an ever increasing rate. Well, as I wrote, I believe society and values are now changing so fast that governments and even individual people are unable to adapt. More than at any other time in our history, there exists a gap between our technological power and our grasp of how to properly use it.
For example, let's talk about education and how we test competence. Most modern tests - the bar examination, the FE exam, an AP Calculus exam - involve a student working in isolation with nothing but a calculator, a pencil, and his brain. Does this make sense anymore? When a WEALTH of information and input from other analysts is now readily and easily available? It's rare - and perhaps entirely impossible - to find a job which does not benefit from access to other experts. I mean, hell, I recently dismantled, repaired, and then reassembled my CAR ENGINE purely by instruction via internet.
So it would make sense to structure tests in such a way that online resources can be used. What we really ought to be testing is not just FACTS-IN-BRAIN (which are important!) but also a student's ability to research, elicit expert response, and synthesize online information.
But could you imagine the response if I proposed allowing students to use their laptops during a test? I know of teachers who STILL do not allow their students to cite online resources. I still hear teachers genuinely state that Wikipedia is not a real source "because it can be edited." What is MOST amusing about that is how those teachers don't grasp how idiotic that statement is. As if a book written and researched by a single author is superior to a crowd-sourced document composed by a hundred scholars.
So there's this huge bias against networked intelligence because society has changed so fast. What was considered CHEATING only ten years ago is now basic reality, in the workplace, in social interaction, and so on. And that's due to the Acceleration of Change.
Vernor Vinge, in Rainbows End, takes an optimistic perspective on this, but his essays are more bleak. He believes in something called a Technology Singularity: eventually we're going to create an AI that's smarter than we are. That AI, in turn, will create an AI smarter than itself. Repeat ad infinitum until ultra-intelligent AIs render humanity obsolete.
*shrug* Not exactly a new idea. But I like to think the Acceleration of Change can explain why it's necessary.
And all that discussion is, ultimately, my review. If contemplating the big ideas of the world is your schtick, then Rainbows End can serve as a wonderful springboard. But if you're simply out for a good yarn - and there's no shame in that - Rainbow's End doesn't quite cut it.
“Nowadays, Grand Terror technology was so cheap that cults and small criminal gangs could acquire it.”
Don't panic just yet, the above quote refers to nowadays in the narrative, not the actual nowadays, though I suppose that could also be a possibility…
Near future sf is not something I get to read often, it makes a change from the standard far future setting of most sf, no galaxy-spanning human empire, usually no aliens, and never time travel. The setting is mostly recognizable as an environment that has logically developed from today, the places, the people and some objects are still mostly the same. According to Wikipedia Rainbows End is set in 2025. However, the year is not mentioned anywhere in the book so I will have to take it on faith. That makes the setting on seven years from now, but the novel was published in 2006, so Vernor Vinge was writing about nineteen years in the future (if 2025 really is the year of the setting).
In this near-future augmented reality (AR) is ubiquitous, as a technology that has advanced from today’s internet and gaming technology. Most people wear smart clothing and contact lenses that add a layer of digital reality to all aspects of life. PCs, smartphones and anything with a screen are generally obsolete as people are constantly online and information can be accessed by gestures. Rainbows End focuses on Professor Robert Gu, a world renown poet and former Alzheimer's sufferer who has been cured by a state of the art treatment. Professor Gu has to adjust to the new world he suddenly finds himself in as he emerged from his Alzheimer's condition. Now everything is online and basic unaugmented reality just does not cut it anymore. This necessitates that he goes back to school to learn to adapt to the modern world, fortunately, the medical treatment has also de-aged him to the extent that he looks like a teenager. Elsewhere, a high-level intelligence officer is plotting to implement a mind control technology on the populace. The scheme requires manipulation of Professor Gu to help with a certain task…
The Machiavellian mind control plotline is the thriller aspect of the book but most of the book is taken up by the exploration of this future setting and how Professor Gu adapts to it. Vernor Vinge clearly depicts how life would be with virtual overlays of reality always in place. Yes, the overlays can be switched off but the default setting is “always on” and most people are content to leave it like that. In some ways this a cautionary tale of what can happen if we are always blurring the line between reality and fantasy virtuality. Much of the technology depicted in this book seems possible, some of them even probable, such as 3D video calls so advanced the caller seems to be with you in your room, the caller ID can also be hacked so that somebody could pose as your friends and relatives. Vinge also puts a lot of effort into his characterizations but somehow none of them really strike a chord with me, I appreciate the effort though, it does give a little more depth to the story underneath all the high tech.
I like Rainbows End a lot, it gives what seems to be a convincing glimpse into the near future. It does, however, suffer from some pacing issues and is not always compelling. It is more interesting than it is riveting. Nevertheless, I recommend for anyone who is interested in how the near future is likely to turn out, and it did win a Hugo Award for Best Novel.
• Vernor Vinge has a lot (well, two things) in common with David Brin. An actual scientist, and follicly challenged.
• His A Fire Upon the Deep is a classic epic space opera, the follow up A Deepness in the Sky is also – uh – quite good…
“Many people were talking to themselves, sometimes gesturing into the empty air, or jabbing fingers at unseen antagonists. Nothing new in that; cellphone addicts had always been one of Robert’s pet peeves. But these folks were more blatant about it than the kids at Fairmont High. There was something foolish about a fellow walking along, suddenly stopping to tap at his belt, and then talking to the air.”
“In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.”
“Terror via technical surprise is the greatest threat to the survival of the human race.”
Although I did not love this book as much as his Zones of Thought space operas, Vernor Vinge has yet to disappoint me. Rainbows End is not really a cyberpunk novel, but "post-cyberpunk." It takes place in a world that looks a lot like ours, if you just extrapolate out the technology. (Almost) everyone is wired, you can carry petabytes in your pocket (the sum total of all recorded human media on the equivalent of a USB drive), the world is globally-connected in ways we still are dreaming about but have not yet achieved, and sensory overlays can turn the physical world into anything its owners or visitors wish to visualize.
Vinge drops lots of recognizable brands and technology: Google is still around. So is the University of California at San Diego, where much of the action takes place.
The threats now are not so much Great Powers lobbing nukes at each other (though that's still a remote possibility) but the fact that the potential for nuclear, chemical, biological, and network terrorism is now also greatly expanded.
The main character is Robert Gu, who was a great poet at the end of the 20th century, but who has slipped into dementia. Until new medical technologies are able to not just reverse his mental deterioration, but give him the body of a teenager as well. There are a couple of catches. The first is that, like most of his fellow rejuvenated senior citizens, he is hopelessly unskilled and inept in the modern world. He has to go back to high school, in a novel "integrated learning environment," to learn how to function and acquire basic skills.
The other catch is that Robert's immense poetic genius was not restored along with his mind. He can still understand poetry, but he can no longer write it. This, to him, is almost worse than not being restored at all.
Initially, it's really hard to get invested in Robert Gu's trials, because it also turns out that he was and is a mean bastard. His genius for poetry was accompanied by a genius for hurting people and an inclination to lash out at any target of opportunity. Early in the book, that's his thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Miri, who's been doing nothing but trying to help him, out of evidently misguided affection and loyalty. At that point, Miri's parents (both of whom have important military jobs that involve standing watch to prevent all those Very Bad Things from happening) almost kick the SOB out of their house, and I was rooting for them to do so.
Then a mysterious stranger shows up and claims he has access to advanced biotechnology that offers a cure for Robert's condition. Robert, desperately, agrees to do one harmless little thing for the mysterious stranger.
The plot involves many other characters, but Robert Gu and his granddaughter are the ones at ground zero. There is a multinational conspiracy, an annoyingly capable rabbit, and a globally-televised LARP battle between (thinly-disguised) Discworld and Pokemon fans which causes a library to dance.
This is true Big Idea science fiction, very futuristic and even optimistic, despite the emphasis on all the new ways that mankind can exterminate itself in a matter of hours. Lots of characters get a turn in the spotlight, some are more interesting than others, and Robert Gu never does become precisely likable, but he does do a bit of a heel face turn.
Highly recommended for those who like their sci-fi hard and wired.
I loved Gibson's Neuromancer and I liked Stephenson's Snow Crash , and this is basically the same thing for the current generation except it leans a little more towards the techno-thriller side, like Michael Crichton if he were actually a good writer and knew more about his subject than what he'd just dug up via research. Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist, so his vision of 2025 rings a helluva lot more true than many others.
The major drawbacks to this book are a lopsided plot (the kind that starts off big and then the author seems to realize they've bitten off more than they can chew) and broadly-drawn characters (though he earns back major points for the fact that only two of them are white, and none of the major characters are). Those are literary complaints; from a SF worldbuilding POV it's entirely satisfactory.
Robert Gu, genius poet, wakes up from a decade of Alzheimer's to find himself restored to the peak of youth in a world gone completely digital. This allows Vinge to explain a lot of things to us via Robert, but because the story is intercut with a number of POVs he also does my favorite kind of speculative writing, forcing the reader to understand everything in context.
The speculation is really rather brilliant. Most people "wear" -- their computers are literally embedded in their clothing and their monitors are contact lenses. This allows them to both compute through body movements instead of keyboards (though a keyboard interface is available for older people) and to view the world exactly as they want...or as various corporations and public entities want. Cameras are everywhere, both for the benefit of the consumer and the government, and everything from forklifts to buildings depend on the link between physical reality and the wireless network to function.
The tech-spec is perfect, but I'm even fonder of the social ramifications. Robert Gu gets stuck in vocational high school to catch up, but he's not the only "retread"; older people who have simply slowed down have to do the same, even those who were brilliant and successful in their earlier career. Children are the masters of technology, and the adults in the book rely on them. Best of all, "belief circles" are fandom all growed up -- they fight for the right to theme public buildings, engage in massive-scale RPG-style interaction, and even create their own characters and storylines (for fractions of pennies which are automatically sent to the copyright-holders, be still my fair-use-loving heart!)
The plot is, as noted, kind of a mess, and the book whimpers to a close, but getting there was fantastic. This also feels like the kind of SF that's normative, not just predictive, and I'd be curious to hear industry takes on some of the tech.
I'm a fan of Vinge's work, and I've had to wrestle a little with the idea that my dislike for this book might just be the result of it being different from the other things he's done. On balance, I don't think that this is the case. This is a book with serious flaws in both credibility and storytelling. On the credibility side, Vinge creates horrific inconsistencies in his visions of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and augmented human interaction which he doesn't even try to paper over. Ultimately, we're left with a world where everybody behaves in outlandish and dangerous ways out of something like inertia, with technological threats that the author doesn't seem willing or able to explain. The initial promise of YGBM almost immediately meanders into garden variety mind control. The AI that's wandering around is such a cliche that half way through the book a bunch of characters have to have a conversation about why they're so sure that an AI can't exist (by the end of the book there might be two AIs wandering around, but Vinge doesn't give any clarity).
But that's not the worst part of the book. In fact, more stress on the technology and international espionage would have been welcome. The vast majority of the book is given up to the dysfunctional family life of one Robert Gu, and how he goes back to high school as a ninety year old man who medical science has rejuvenated. We hear about shop class, term projects, high school teachers... but it's all just flashy nonsense (wouldn't it be cool if...) without any development of the rationale behind the teaching method or the results on society of this weird and utterly implausible school system. In fact, the society is a lot like the technology: it doesn't make any sense on its own and Vinge can't be bothered to explain anything.
But that's still not the worst thing about this book. The worst thing is how completely unsympathetic all of the characters are. They veer wildly between pathetic and pretentious, Vinge can't seem to decide whether any given one of them is a earth-shaking genius or a total idiot, so every character is both, with irritating and incomprehensible results. The plot is mostly driven by mind-bogglingly bad decisions, most of which are never recognized as possibly sub-optimal by the characters (as master spy with a super secret project that I'm trying to hide from my compatriots who trust me implicitly, is putting together an investigation of the lab where the project is being developed, outsourcing all of the work to an unknown quantity and creating a ridiculously convoluted plot involving literally thousands of players really the best way to allay suspicion?) Actually, the actions of all the characters are a lot like the society and technology for the same reason cited above.
In summary, there is no part of this book that makes a lick of sense. There are no characters in this book that I care about. I'm honestly not sure whether there's any reason for the book to exist... a lot of it reads like Vinge had a bunch of random notes about futuristic high schools and being a Terry Pratchett fanboy and decided to round it out with some unpleasant characters being snippy with each other.