Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

The latest novel from Vernor Vinge and I’m rather underwhelmed. It’s not the disappointment that was A Feast for Crows, but it has some similar flaws. The minor characters are either too abundant, or given too much time and do too little with it. The immediate conflict Vinge introduces is resolved neatly, but it’s so closely tied to the concept of the Next Very Bad Thing he creates, that it’s difficult to be satisfied with the resolution.

I’d get more elaborate in my criticisms, but that’d require pretending to be smarter than I am, and I’m way too lazy for that after plowing through the last hundred or so pages.

I really enjoyed it, though it does feel stretched out from the series of short stories it originated from. Vinge tried a little too hard to be hip and current; he does much better in the far-off space opera stuff.

Still a great book.

Here’s the review I just posted today on my blog:

Vernor Vinge’s new book, Rainbows End is out, and I’ve just finished reading it. Anticipation for this was very high, and it nearly lived up to it. Definitely a Hugo contender for next year. Some spoilers follow, though I hope nothing too major.

It’s set in the near future; no exact date is given, but from contextual clues, probaly sometime between 2020-2030. Some impressive social/technological prediction therein, much of which I expect to come true. On the other hand, I suspect that this book will date oddly, as some of the stuff he talks about is likely to come true well before then. Much of it is about trying to live on the cusp of a Singularity, where skills become obsolete almost faster than you can learn them, and adults have to go back to high school and compete with pre-teens. Much (though far from all) of the book is from the viewpoint of a old man who has recently been cured of Alzheimer’s. This allows Vinge to use the classic “stranger in a strange land who needs everything explained to him” trope.

I found the title to be extremely clever, and resonant on many levels. The first one that leaps to mind is “the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end”, frequently taken to be a symbol of technological progress, and the utopian life that it will bring. This came out explicitly, for example, in Pohl’s well-known story, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”, which prefigured some of the later ideas about the Singularity. Also, from The Muppet Movie, the song “Rainbow Connection” has the lines “Who said that every wish / would be heard and answered / when wished on the mornoing star? / Somebody thought of that / and someone believed it / look what it’s done so far.” Ideas and imaginaton, when enacted in reality and technology, bring us “over the rainbow”.

Which brings us to another famous rainbow image, that from The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 movie version). While the movie, in its final minutes, privileges reality over fantasy, the movie as a whole is a celebration of fantasy. Indeed, Dorothy learns all her important lessons, and is most “alive”, while in the fantasy world that occupies the vast majority of the movie. In just this way, the children depicted in RE “live” in a world that is more virtual than real. While they walk through real, physical spaces, they are constantly viewing technicolor overlays that make their world far more interesting than the mere sepia-toned “reality” occupied by the old folks.

All these images, however, are of “rainbow’s end” – and Vinge’s title lacks the apostrophe. Once again, we see that punctuation is of vital importance! Within the book, the name appears as the name of a retirement home for the elderly who have been left behind by the golden future. One elderly viewpoint character (at almost the exact midpoint of the book) speculates whether the name is another example of the illiteracy that he sees in all the young people, or whether it is actually a cogent observation. Certainly, the author intends this ambiguity.

The phrase “rainbows end” is not a noun, but a statement, and a chilling one. Here we come to an even older rainbow allusion – the physical symbol of God’s covenant with Noah that the world will not be destroyed again. Many of the characters are deeply concerned with the very real possibility of the world ending. As utopia puts more and more power in the hands of the everyday person, so also does that power come into the hands of the aberrant evil person – the terrorist. World-threatening WMDs, once only the province of Great Powers, are now accessible to relatively small groups, and soon will be accessible to individuals. How one keeps the world going in that condition is a major concern of the book.

In fact, this book seems to be in a line with the books that I was seeking to classify a few days back. Although RE isn’t as far along that path, it shares the general quality of great threats mixed with great promises. Indeed, the back cover quotes (which I avoided reading until done with the book) put me on the track for a good word. Cory Doctorow uses a word which is almost what I want “[dys|u]topia”. That certainly looks good on paper, but in casual speech would be hard to distinguish from simple dystopia. Hence, I propose “udystopia” to describe these “mixed message” futures.

This ambiguity extends to the plot structure as well. While there is a character in the plot position of a classic “Bond villain”, he is one of the viewpoint characters, and his motives (if not his means) are clearly Good. Eventually there are two antagonists, and while each of them has their immediate plans foiled, the author deliberately avoids telling the reader what their personal fates were. Each might have been taken out by the Good Guys, or might still be active to try another day. While order has been preserved for the moment, it is clear that the world remains in a fundamentally unstable state. But hope springs eternal, and even appears to be justified.

Just finished it this morning, and really enjoyed it.

It had some flow issues (the wrapup was very sudden, and much of it “offscreen”), but overall, very enjoyable. I’d love to see some of this tech come true.

Plus, I want a Greater Scooch-a-mout vs. Dangerous Knowledge RTS.

I just finished this weekend as well. I also thought it was pretty good. It was a little slow to get into, but I realised his other books have been like that as well. Both the Zones of Thought novels drop you in an alien world without bothering to explain stuff to you up front. It’s a little disorienting, but in those books you at least get some relief in the form of the traditional human sci-fi part of the narrative. Rainbows End doesn’t offer that seperate perspective, so you just have to go with it until you figure out the network/wearing stuff.

And it’s a really intriguing vision of the near future. A cool spin on the cyberpunk ideas about metarealities where instead of entering a seperate cyberspace all those digital constructs are just overlays for physical reality. The clash of the belief circles was a cool take on the future of fandom and I liked the ideas on networked warfare where the first order of business is to attack and control the local infrastructure.

I just finished this and was disappointed overall. There are some really cool ideas, but the main plot is a bit underwhelming, and I dislike the ambiguity about the ending. Is rabbit an AI? Did Vaz get found out by his colleagues? What happened to the YGBM technology? Why is Alice going back into JITT again?

Also, I was miffed to discover, after finishing an ebook version of the novel that I bought from Fictionwise, that the entire book is for some reason available online at:

http://vrinimi.org/rainbowsend.html

The rabbit is an AI. I don’t remember the rest, though I think Alice is going back into JITT because of necessity.