Rating - 3.5: worth reading, parts worth re-reading (borrow or buy it)
As a piece of speculative fiction in the classic vein, this is ridiculously good. As a story, it is good but the climax and denouement do not live up to the promise of the earlier chapters. Much of that, however, is only because the earlier chapters are rather good.
Robert Gu was a Nobel laureate poet, but now he is a recovering Alzheimer's victim, restored to youth and lucidity by medical breakthroughs in 2025. His talent did not survive the restoration, leaving him yet another young-old man in a world whose technology passed him by decades ago. Now people wear their computers with contact lens monitors, constantly connected and living as much virtually as physically. As he is finding his place in this world, someone else is finding a place for him in a plan for world domination.
Huh, my summary left out Miri, and Robert's relationships with his granddaughter and others form the real story. There are two stories going on here. One is a tale of technology and spycraft, a sci fi story where the world has been changed by ubiquitous networked computers and where secret forces work to create or prevent massive disasters.
That is the backdrop for the real story, one where an old man gets another shot at life. Robert Gu was a horrible person the first time around, and now he has lost the gift that made people put up with that. He has no friends, a family that knows what a viper he is, and no useful skills. He does not get Scrooge's epiphany; he wakes up with the same personality, not knowing that he has nothing left. Good luck, Mr. Gu.
Vernor Vinge is known for two big things. The Singularity is not relevant here. The other, however, is that he invented the internet even before Al Gore came along. We have a generation of authors who wrote about cyberspace and virtual reality and a bunch of other things that so far have amounted to Second Life. Few have rivaled Mr. Vinge as an accurate barometer of the future.
Here we see different technologies at play. The world of Rainbows End arises from the advancement of several technologies: Google, iPods, Wikipedia, and cell phones. Computer miniaturization has continued to the point that computers are wearable, sewn into garments that pick up input from body movements and output to contact lenses. These wearable computers are networked in a sort of global wifi. Now you are always online. Let's explore for a moment how those four technologies I mentioned worked in a universally networked world.
With cell phones, everyone talks to everyone all the time. At Rainbows End, you really are always in touch. Expand the number of people walking around talking to no visible person, and multiply by the ability to reach anyone in the world at any time. If talking is too intrusive, why not learn to text message with no physical movement, so you can send someone a silent message in an instant? When something odd happens in school, the entire class falls silent as everyone starts "talking."
Why limit yourself to chatter, when the whole internet is there for you? When you have Google connected to your eyes, you can find out anything, now. You get used to someone freezing for a moment during conversation as he looks up something. The real skill is sorting through everything out there. If you have a problem, search for a solution; if it is not there, find a usergroup and send a question; 5000 people around the globe just got your e-mail on their contact lenses, and 20 of them have ideas for you.
Go ride a bus or train and see how many people are listening to MP3 players. Even in a massively networked world, we are each in our own realities, walking through town with our personal soundtracks. When you can project images onto your eyes, why stop with audio accompaniment? Put virtual posters on the walls of your room, ones that you can change with a blink or that only you can see. Re-decorate your morning commute with characters from Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. See the world the way it wants to be seen or the way that you want to see it. Remember, sharing these happier visions with your friends is only an e-mail away.
Maybe they have some ideas they would like to send back. Everyone contributes, everyone collaborates. When everyone is connected to everyone, why not take the very best that everyone has to offer and combine it? You have access to a virtual library of everything everyone has contributed, from which you can pick your favorites according to your tastes. The world is open source, and everyone is a part of it.
It's a brave new world, and all of it is completely believable. The young people take for granted that everything of value is in Google, and they type literally at the speed of thought. The old people are trying to keep up with exponentially increasing technology, where the engineer who built the network can no longer understand what is happening on it. School really is about learning to learn when the only way to keep students off Google is to strip them naked or encase them in lead before a test, and who knows if that is foolproof (and if there is a way around it, it will be available to the world in seconds).
The jargon should be comprehensible to a general audience, but the references give extra returns to people in the know. From another author, a reference to "the WikiBells" might seem like using buzzwords, but I really believe that Vernor Vinge knows about emerging ideas in utility markets. Quantum soccer must look as confusing to a lay reader as to Robert.
Will Google still be relevant in 2025? It did not exist ten years ago. While some companies will make the transition into and through new technology, it is easy to forget how very new so many things are. Maybe "Google" is meant to have survived as a term, "search online," which is what it already means despite anything trademark lawyers might say.
All this time talking about technology, when I said the book is really about people. Robert Gu's story is one that unfolds gradually, a dynamic character more believable than the dynamic technology. Each member of our supporting cast focuses on a specific role, each given an appropriate amount of depth and breadth. Mr. Vinge gets full marks for giving neither too much or too little detail about each character, striking the balance at which so many authors fail. We do not have a great many well-developed characters, but each is satisfying and fully adequate to its purpose.
The elements are slow to come together at the start. It is not clear that Robert is the main character until well into the book. Instead, we have several chapters that establish the world and much of the supporting cast. This is not a bad thing, but it may be difficult for a reader who is trying to get a handle on what is going on. "Why are we going in this direction now?" Don't worry, we will get back to that opening. Also, if you are having trouble continuing because Robert is not a likable character, keep going.
The bulk of the story in the center is excellent. Once you are into the swing of it, it does everything it needs to with people, the setting, technology, anything you could want from the book.
The climax is not entirely successful. The threads running in parallel do come together and unify the story, but there remain several separate narratives going on. Rabbit's part of the story is under-explained, although there is enough to get by; I would read a companion book that redid the entire story from Rabbit's perspective. The characters are not sure who is distracting who from what, and even knowing all the separate pieces, the reader should not be too sure which is the more broadly significant event going on there. This is the point at which there is both too much and too little: too many things going on at once to do each perfectly. The early parts of the book set a high standard.
The denouement is also somewhat weak. We have three chapters and an epilogue of almost pure Robert. He is the main character, but that is a narrow focus for a book that covers so much. Maybe Robert was right back in the day: it really is all about him, and no one else matters except in how they affect him. It feels confined, incomplete. Luckily, I am told that there is a follow-up in the works.
Can I cite a cliche? Authors very frequently write about authors. Our protagonist is a poet, but better than that he is a poet with a permanent case of writer's block. Better than that, given the author here, he has also developed a capacity and curiosity for math and technology. Write what you know!
Those plot structure critiques aside, it is a great book. It is imaginative yet fully comprehensible. Even if you do not care about the story, Rainbows End is worth re-reading in ten or twenty years just to see how well it did with technology picks. This may be the one we look back on as a model for how the world is arranged.
Or maybe we will all hit the Singularity first.
free online edition
The title still perplexes me. Why that title, out of all the things in the book.
Having read other reviews, I am aware that my opinion of the book is not uncontroversial. Some people really hated it, some because of the characters and other because the technology was too advanced or not advanced enough. Does that last pair of complaints cancel out? I suspect there is a sweet spot of age and technological sophistication that forms the ideal audience for this book. Oddly, I don't think Vernor Vinge is within a decade of that age group.