Fiction Reviews

Rainbows End

(2006) Vernor Vinge, Tor (UK), £6.99, pbk, 381 pp, ISBN 978-0-330-4-5194-9


Vinge's Rainbows End is set in the (uncomfortably) near future of 2025. Old man, and former poet and academic, Robert Gu awakens to find himself younger but missing several years from his memory due to having had Alzheimer's but being successfully treated. This would not be too bad were it not for everyone and everything having moved on. His world is strange and familiar at the same time. The hardest part of this new life is the systems and hardware into which the old computers and internet have developed. No longer do you have a PC but you wear contact lenses with data being delivered straight to your eyes. Your clothes have the electronics (using nano-circuitry) embedded in them. E-mail has largely been replaced by sminging that enables silent person-to-person communication (as opposed to PC-to-PC). Advertising has become smart and tailored to individual passers-by. Buildings and the landscape (through the afore-mentioned contact lenses and similar functioning glasses) become transformed. Kids run in the street with invisible balls or play fight with terrifying fantasy monsters. Data streams become the building blocks of activity. Life is very, very different. If truth be told, Robert finds it all a little frightening and certainly awfully bewildering.

Rainbows End came out in 2006 from Tor's US cousin but has now made it to this side of the Pond. It was short-listed for both the Locus and the Hugo Award. At the time of writing this review it has won the 2007 Locus for 'Best SF Novel' but the announcement for the Hugo Awards for SF achievement is still a month away. Of course getting the Locus is the real statement of this book's genre value as that award has a separate category for 'best fantasy novel' whereas the Hugo Award for SF achievement, though having a prestigious history, is these days a bit of a genre mush. (If you think I am being a bit harsh then you may care to note that the Hugo attracts a significantly fewer number of voters than the Locus even if, for those into tinsel, the Hugo awards ceremony has far more glitz.) Needless to say then that Rainbows End is a real SF corker. Consequently I guess this review is reduced to commenting on whether the book deserved its Locus win and of course inform as to what it is all about...

As might well be expected from its award status, Rainbows End is not just a cracking good read but it does push the SF envelope. Naturally over the years there have been a number of landmark novels that deal with computing and society. Therefore the temptation is to compare Rainbows End with these. Such titles might include William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and a decade on Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994): the former was one of the titles that launched the cyberpunk movement, while the latter explored issues surrounding living fully in cyberspace. With Rainbows End we get a different view of cyberspace. This is our view as biological sentients looking at cyberspace from real space: one of cyberspace being an artificial layer superimposed on reality that can be used to inform, entertain and mislead. Above and beyond this Rainbows End further explores a concept more exclusively associated with some of Vernor Vinge's previous works, that of the 'singularity'. Those not familiar with the concept should first dismiss any notion of it relating to some quantum point of infinite mass that warps space-time. In the Vinge sense, the singularity is the point in time of human technological development when the development runs away with itself in a kind of super-exponential positive feedback kind of way. In the Vinge sense society sees major dislocation due to encountering its singularity. Vinge's other works have looked at the time before and the time after singularity but not the singularity itself. With Rainbows End we get to see a bit of what it is like a little way before encountering the singularity. Here only some humans -- those who are slow, or elderly, or who have been shying away from using technology -- are left behind by a technology that seems all too mysterious. Conversely the bright and the young have few problems. In one sense we see this already in the real world with youngsters being able to set up and run domestic devices with apparent ease while some of us oldies struggle. Of course this is a cliché view but one not entirely without merit. In Rainbows End those with power find the cutting-edge technologies both a boon and a curse.

The strength of Rainbows End, for me, comes through in the book's first two-thirds as our protagonist has to grapple with the mundanity of modern life and to relate his former, life-long values to the brave new world in which he finds himself. Meanwhile there is a great parallel story going on of technological intrigue being handled by those behind the political scenes. To deal with the intrigue the 'power-holders' need to employ an independent agent (for plausible deniability reasons) who is manifested as a rabbit in cyberspace overlying reality. So, for example, the superpower politico-agent types sit down for a coffee outside a street café with the rabbit; though only those 'wearing' (the necessary electro-opticals and support hardware in their clothes) can see this creature, but of course nearly everyone is wearing. Then there are also some delightful plays to the gallery with mentions of SF. (For example the 'geeks' would be among those to less mind losing real books to digitisation, as well as mentions of Pratchett and Rowling. Though citing pop-culture hit Rowling (entertaining as her books certainly are) as literature is presumably humorous: though, mindful of my earlier Hugo comments, I note she did get a Hugo Award for SF achievement in 2001 for one of her Potter books!)

For me much of Rainbows End's final third was a little over-the-top. Some might like this as the action moves up a gear. Personally I found it both a little jarring and unnecessary. Nonetheless the final page has a sound allegorical message on which to end and which puts our protagonist's own personal quest into some sort of context. All in all, Rainbows End is a remarkable book. That it is set so near in the future is either very predictive (that the next one and a half decades are going to see a major revolution in computing, the internet and the way we as individuals as well as society live with this technology not to mention that of the bioscience revolution), or Vinge is setting himself up for a predictive fall as we will not have long to see whether he is right. If it is predictive then our having to deal with singularity-like problems may well begin earlier this century than later. If it is not then it will be a bit like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey today, after that iconic year, but without artificial intelligence, an orbiting space hotel (the international space station simply doesn't hack it) or mega-large lunar colonies. (I remember standing outside my home one night in 2001 asking Hal to open the front door. In retrospect a silly exercise: I did not even get told once in to take an anti-stress pill.) Anyway, enough rambling. You get the idea that this is one of hard SF's more remarkable recent offerings and that I recommend it. Of course you do not need this last. It won a Locus Award you know and now having read Rainbows End for myself I am not going to argue with that.

Jonathan Cowie

Update: Just a few days prior to posting Rainbows End won the annual Hugo for 'Best Novel'.

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