Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Guess what time it is kids? It’s time for a book review! We haven’t had one of these in a while. Stop whining! I’m giving you good SF titles to read here. I’m enriching your lives. So you are gonna read this review, and you are gonna like it (on Facebook).

I would lump Rainbows End in the same category as Halting State by Charles Stross, which I reviewed very recently. It is not a bad category to be in mind you. Both Stross and Vinge have overlapping fields of interest and every once in a while their work converges around the same themes. Halting State and Rainbow’s End were published around the same time (2007 and 2006 respectively, with Vinge being the first one to tackle the subject). Both aim to depict very near future – you know, stuff that’s just around the next corner and beyond the horizon. Both use political intrigue and international espionage as an excuse for exploring social, political and cultural impact mobile technology will have on future generations. Stross focuses on MMO‘s and ARG‘s while Vinge seems to be entirely obsessed with Augmented Reality and its applications. Stoss is worried about organized cyberterrorism and breakdown of modern cryptography while Vinge is more concerned with bioterror and smart bio weapons.

Book Cover

As you can see there are many parallels between these two novels. When I was reading Rainbow’s End I could not help but to compare it to Halting State. So this is more or less going to be review by comparison. Perhaps it is not fair to Vinge whose book was published first, but then again fair reviews are usually not that interesting. Good reviews are subjective and opinionated.

The technology in Halting State is rather conservative compared to that in Rainbows End. Stross predicts that HUD glasses that talk to your cell phone will be the next big thing. Vinge goes step further and tries to imagine stuff that will replace our boxy old phones. He comes up with HUD contact lenses and wearable computers woven into the fabric of your clothes. You put your jacket on, and you are instantly online.

Rainbow’s End’s main character, Robert Gu is a world famous poet who has succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, recent medical breakthroughs have granted him a sudden reprieve. The experimental new treatments fully reverse his loss of memory, restore his mental faculties and rejuvenate him. One of the sharpest and most brilliant minds of his generation is suddenly roused from his few decade long “comma” and decides to add a few notches to his belt before old age gets the best of him. One of the things on his bucket list is adding a final chapter to his collection of poems by chronicling his return from the land of the dead. Unfortunately things are not longer the way he remembered them from before. The progress did not wait for Robert Gu – it bypassed him and left him behind.

His son’s house where he is recuperating has no TV sets, no books, no magazines and no paper and writing utensils. Computers are no longer the clunky beige boxes he remembered, but are now woven into clothing and operated via subtle muscle movements and eye tracking provided by special high-tech contacts. And elderly poet, who was never good with computers is now stranded in the analog realm – half deaf and half blind compared to everyone else. He must adapt to a strange new world he does not fully understand or once again fade into obscurity.

In his former life Gu would be the type of person I would openly dislike – a guy who flaunts his computer illiteracy as if it was a badge of honor. Someone who dislikes technology as a rule, who has no respect for work of IT people despite constantly relying on their expertise to get any work done. The kind of guy who would call the help desk every day, and insist you send someone to his office to power up his virus ridden PC. But this kind of attitude is no longer tolerated in Vinges near future. People like Gu are marginalized and swept under the rug. The old poet is smart enough to realize this.

Much of the book is basically a story of an old technophobe who is forced to finally suck it up and learn to live a modern lifestyle. Gu doesn’t merely become proficient – he gets sucked in, and enamored by the technology and it’s capabilities. He tinkers, he dabbles in programing and revels in new found power. And it is quite interesting to watch this transformation, because it gives you hope for the future of all the stubborn, cranky cyber-muggles we all harbor in our households.

Of course the miraculous resurrection of the erstwhile literary legend does not go unnoticed in the über connected world of tomorrow. Fans and literature students want to interview him, publishers are interested in his new work. Foreign intelligence communities take note that he is living in a house with two high ranked military officers who work with homeland security on securing a local biotech lab that is conducting some top secret experiments. It is only a matter of time before confused and future shocked Gu becomes a pawn in a much bigger game of international espionage.

The espionage hook is fairly interesting but I liked the book mostly because of Vinge’s insights into mobile technology evolution and other insightful guesses. He makes some very interesting observations of current trends, and extrapolates their future implications.

For example, the chief theme is Augmented Reality. Stross touched upon it in Halting State with various live overlays the characters used to navigate streets in foreign cities – stuff not much unlike we already have right now (see Yelp phone app or Google Googles). Vinge however goes all out on this topic. His characters are no longer fully bound to meat-space and experience their world through a myriad of augmented reality filters. Public buildings have AR furnishings and ornaments that make them look more festive. Billboards are replaced by streaming advertising overlays. Schools and office buildings have their room numbers replaced by online tags that can be pulled up or hidden at will.

Whole alternate realities are built and in massive collaborative projects by the local tinkerers. Your local town may have a medieval town layer, cyberpunk version, or even a alien bio-hive layer all available and explorable via your wearable computer. Amusement parks eschew traditional “rides” for fully immersive virtual reality simulations with tactile feedback.

High school students don’t learn programming – they are already expected to know how to program their wearables and how to put together augmented reality multimedia presentations. They have classes in crowd sourcing and data mining techniques instead.

Big data mining corporations are grinding up world’s libraries and museums racing to digitize and lock up these treasure troves of human knowledge behind DRM pay-walls. Their methods are irreversibly destructive, polarizing popular opinion between those who want to save antique books, and those who want to preserve and digitize their context before they deteriorate and are lost forever.

Vinge also describes an amusing, clueless PHD student who gets his wearable completely compromised but does not have enough common sense to clear the intrusion. More than one interested party uses his wide open security to remotely chat with the legendary poet.

It is a relevant and interesting book. Relevant to my interests, but also interesting to read now that mobile technology is taking over the world by storm. Perhaps not yet visionary, but close to it. It is not mind blowing, mind you – but Vinge does make a lot of very good arguments and interesting predictions. With respect to quality, it is about the same level as Halting state, though perhaps smoother and a bit more mature in topic selection. Then again he does reinvent some sort of pokemon like fad that plays a major role in the third act, which is about as silly as Stross’ MMO gameplay descriptions.

Rainbow’s Ed is not nearly as good as A Deepness in the Sky or Marooned in Realtime but at the same time not much worse. It turns out that Vinge can produce very compelling near future prose that does not contain space opera elements and does not mention singularity at all. Pick it up – I recommend it.

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4 Responses to Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

  1. Agnosis CANADA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    That reminds me of an anime named Mnemosyne. Have you watched it? It is not that great and at moments it goes too far with the fan service, touching the realm of soft hentai, but it also has some interested things. The story is about a girl that cannot die (nop, not because of technology but due to a “mystic seed”). The interesting think is that, as she is almost immortal, each chapter portraits her in a different moment of time, going from more or less our present to certain future. In the last episodes, she lives in a time when you can connect to a virtual world that feels almost like the real, and then in a time when the virtual and the real world have been merged. It is not clear how it is done (my bet is wet circuits), but they see at the same time the common reality and the virtual one. One example is a girl that has a purse. When his fathers allows her to buy another one, a set of windows casted by her appear floating in the middle of the room. She chooses a new purse from a catalog, and that’s it: her same purse now looks completely different to everyone. That was interesting for a 2008 anime. I wonder if the author read this book …

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Agnosis:

    Nope, never seen it. Sounds interesting though. Btw, Mnemosyne is actually a Greek godes who is the personification of memory. That’s where we get words like “mnemonics”. Seems fitting name for an immortal who would live forever – as if to remember everything there was to remember. Sounds very Gamain-ish actually. :)

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  3. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You described the same clueless PHD student twice :P

    Interesting ideas going on though… if I follow through on the idea of making more time for reading actual books and whatnot, might put this on the list of things to occupy that time.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Matt`:

    Whoops… One of these was supposed to get deleted. I fixed it now. :)

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