Rainbows End Mass Market Paperback – Apr 3 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Set in San Diego, Calif., this hard SF novel from Hugo-winner Vinge (A Deepness in the Sky) offers dazzling computer technology but lacks dramatic tension. Circa 2025, people use high-tech contact lenses to interface with computers in their clothes. "Silent messaging" is so automatic that it feels like telepathy. Robert Gu, a talented Chinese-American poet, has missed much of this revolution due to Alzheimer's, but now the wonders of modern medicine have rehabilitated his mind. Installed in remedial classes at the local high school, he tries to adjust to this brave new world, but soon finds himself enmeshed in a somewhat quixotic plot by elderly former University of California–San Diego faculty members to protest the destruction of the university library, now rendered superfluous by the ubiquitous online databanks. Unbeknownst to Robert, he's also a pawn in a dark international conspiracy to perfect a deadly biological weapon. The true nature of the superweapon is never made entirely clear, and too much of the book feels like a textbook introduction to Vinge's near-future world. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
In the near future, the European Center for Defense against Disease discovers a diabolical pseudomimivirus. Rather than set off a panic, secret agents of the EU, Japan, and India work clandestinely to uncover a conspiracy seemingly based in a San Diego lab. Former poet Robert Gu, a recovering Alzheimer's patient (one of the lucky few who took to all the treatments), returns to school just as agents Braun, Vaz, and Mitsuri put their wheels in motion. Immensely frustrated by simultaneously living with his son's family and completely reeducating himself, Gu becomes a perfect dupe for the hacker hired by the gang of spooks. Under cover of a library protest, Gu and some old friends get into the lab, trailed by one of Gu's adolescent classmates and his granddaughter. The conspiracy runs deep and has some terrifying implications on account of YGBM (you gotta believe me) technology, regardless of the conspirators' intentions. The near future is less alien here than in some of Vinge's other work, but no less fascinating and well constructed. Regina Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
A good book, but if you are interested in Vernor Vinge and have not read his stuff, I would steer you toward A Fire Upon The Deep, A Deepness In the Sky, The Peace War, and Marooned in Realtime before you pick up this one.
I've never liked cyberpunk William Gibsonesque sci fi, so the jacket description of Rainbow's End didn't sound promising. But come on, I thought, this is Vernor Effin' Vinge! A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep are my all-time favorite sci fi novels: rich, complex, with lots of action and endearing, fully-realized alien cultures. Surely Vinge could find gold in the cyberhills.
Now I'm 200 pages into the book, and I've given up. Try as I might, I can't force myself to care - about the unlikable characters, their indecipherable actions, or the unpleasant world they inhabit. The last 50 pages has dealt with the main (?) character learning to use his virtual reality computer interface web browser contact lenses. Yep, it's that exciting. Around him, mysterious virtual entities do mysterious virtual things. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Who cares? There are interesting ideas, but the world and the characters are dull and off-putting.
Of the hundreds of sci-fi novels I've read, only three have provoked such apathy that I could not bring myself to finish them. That one of them was written by my hero, Vernor Vinge, is a deep disappointment.
The setting of the novel (and the short story for that matter) is San Diego in the year 2025, which the reader discovers is a world in which the internet connects people and places in ways not possible today. Miniaturization has advanced to such a degree that most people, all the time, have operating computers on them, embedded and weaved into otherwise normally looking clothing called wearables (if someone has on clothing with a computer in it with the capacity to go online he or she is said to be "wearing") and are able to interact with these computers and the internet via special contact lenses. When people first start mastering wearables and their associated contacts they often have to type in the air with their fingers on a phantom keyboard, made visible to the user thanks to their contacts, but as a user becomes more proficient they become able to access computer resources by much more subtle gestures, including particular facial and eye movements.
Most areas of the civilized world allow people to maintain a connection to the internet at all times via a vast array of devices embedded in buildings, on the ground, even flying through the air (though areas called deadzones exist, where either thanks to a paucity of devices or a total lack of devices either only a much reduced connection is possible or no connection of any kind can be made; these areas might be found in parts of buildings not normally visited by the public or even those who work there - such as in sewers - or in wilderness areas such as might be found in national parks).
Thanks to their wearables, contacts, and the network nodes that are readily accessible with no effort at all, most people are not only always online but always using some aspect of the internet. Access to online information and computational power is available in seconds. There is no need for cell phones, as one can connect with virtually anyone in the world in seconds. Anyone can interact and collaborate with anyone else on a shared project no matter how distant they are, whether it is a school science project or a business venture. Anyone can virtually attend a play, a sporting event, or just visit with friends, quite visible to those wearing and even able to interact with the real environment to varying degrees depending upon the user's skill and local available resources.
Perhaps even more interesting, one can choose to see one's surroundings in an online, artificial format, one created by others. Utility workers for instance can choose a viewpoint that to their eyes reveals all underground cables and pipes with words floating in the air above these structures conveying valuable information. Many buildings - though not generally private homes - can be seen through, revealing the inhabitants within.
Even more startling, entire fantasy landscapes can be seen instead of the real environment. Cities, chambers of commerce, entertainment businesses, and groups of private individuals called belief circles can construct simple or very elaborate virtual realities which overlay the real environment, visible through a user's contacts. Many different realities co-exist, the user needing only to choose the one he or she wants to view. These realities can be just better looking versions of the real world, such as a city with nicer looking buildings, better views, fuller and healthier trees, etc. or completely fantastic realms based on the works of say Tolkien, Pratchett, or even Pokemon-esque settings, the user seeing instead of a person's two story home a castle, instead of a police helicopter a dragon, etc. The fact that no one drives anymore - cars are all automatic and computer controlled - makes this a great deal safer than it may sound.
Well, enough about the setting. The story is a very good one, involving what are at first two seemingly unconnected plot threads. The first thread we are introduced to involves the security agencies of Europe and Asia, whose alert monitoring of the world's communications, mass media, advertising, and sports events discover two rather unusual anomalies, perhaps unconnected, perhaps not. Though the two events are seemingly innocuous (whether taken together or separately), the vast resources of computer power and analysts that are brought to bear on these events suggest to security personnel that someone is very subtly testing a new weapons system, perhaps a YGBM weapon (YGBM stands for You-Gotta-Believe-Me, jargon for mind control weapons). In a world nervous after decades of fighting terrorists and leery of increasingly easily available weapons of mass destruction, an investigation is quickly and quietly launched.
The other thread focuses on the life of Robert Gu, a noted poet from the late 20th and early 21st centuries who nearly succumbed to Alzheimer's but thanks to modern technology has been saved and even made seemingly younger, getting a whole new lease on life. Having to reenroll in high school (along with his granddaughter, Miri, and Juan Orozco) to learn how to live and work in today's society (along with other much older students, trying to reconnect with a world quite different from that which they were born in), Robert, Miri, Juan, Miri's parents (Bob and Alice) and others somehow manage to become involved in the covert action to find the YGBM weapon.
The two plot threads connected very well together and made for a great story. I would love to see more novels or short stories in this setting.
Vinge, of course, is very well known for his notion of the "Technological Singularity": the hypothesis that soon technological change will be so overwhelming that we can't even imagine what will come next. _Rainbow's End_ is a brave attempt to look twenty years closer towards that cliff. It makes interesting speculation.
It's only partially successful as a tale, though, because:
1) The changes Vinge posits in society and technology are quite extensive, and he has to spend a good deal of time explaining them. He does it well, and his ideas are interesting and plausible, but it's still something of an essay instead of a narrative. The characterization, in particular, is a bit hit-or-miss.
2) I wonder whether Vinge overstates his case for the upcoming "Singularity." (The assumption that change is inevitably, monotonically accelerating is certainly arguable. Have things changed more in, say, the 80 years since 1926 than in the 80 years before that date?) I'm not sure that the Singularity *won't* happen, but I'm not sure that it *will* either. I think I'd have enjoyed the book a little more if I were.
3) Certain details of the story--e.g., the exact nature of Rabbit and of the "YGBM" McGuffin--are treated rather sketchily. Some readers will be annoyed by this; others won't care.
Still, this is a very good book. It's a likely Hugo nominee. It's interesting, it's plausible, it's exciting. The menacing aspects of all that gosh-wow new tech are shown in an understated but very effective fashion. (People in the book refer to "Chicago" the way we say "9/11". Nice touch.) The villain is an interesting character; you may even find yourself sympathizing with his point of view.
I don't think it's Vinge's best work. In twenty years, though, I might change my mind.
Vinge has developed a vision of our technological near-future that is reasonably interesting. People wear contacts lenses and their clothes receive and transmit information, controlled by body motions, in such a way that they can project skins onto their environment, interact with distant people as if in the same room, send their virtual avatar elsewhere, and so on. This technology has become ubiquitous in people's lives, so experiencing reality "in the raw," without virtual overlays, has become a novelty.
That's kind of interesting, I guess, and not implausible as a near-future scenario. But that's it. That's all Vinge has. The need for sympathetic characters, or an engaging story, or any kind of dramatic tension, seems to have been forgotten. Some readers seem to have gotten excited about the imaginary-but-plausible technology conjured by Vinge, but, speaking for myself, (A) exciting technology doesn't suffice for a good book, and (B) it wasn't THAT exciting. One character in the book still uses a LAPTOP (gasp!), and we are clumsily reminded endlessly of how hopelessly old-fashioned this will be in the future. (What's the point? Are we supposed to laugh at ourselves for being such lame laptop users? Be amazed at the outrageous prophesy that one day laptops will be old hat?)
This is how bad it was: I waded through it, stoically determined, until I was about 20 pages from the end. And then it just sat there gathering dust beside my bed and I actually FORGOT that I hadn't finished it. I started another book. Three or four days went by, and with a sinking heart I MADE myself finish Rainbows End (because that's the kind of person I am). And, no, it didn't redeem itself in the last 20 pages. And this won a Hugo Award?! Sheesh.