Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (2006) is subtitled “a novel with one foot in the future,” but that seems a little too modest; to me it feels like the novel takes a daring leap into our near future and lands solidly with both feet. This is a story brimming with technological concepts, all combining to create a revealing and plausible vision of what the world could look like in another twenty years. And what does that world look like? In some ways it’s hopeful and inviting; in other ways it’s dangerous and downright scary. It’s a very different world that you or I might have trouble adapting to, just as the main character does.
Robert Gu, formerly a famous poet, finds himself re-awakening in 2025, having been cured of the Alzheimer’s he suffered from for the past decade and a half. Suddenly he must try to reconnect not only with his family, but also with a world that has transformed into something uncomfortable and alienating to him. It’s a world of vastly increased connectivity, a world that makes the internet and cellphones and PDA’s of today seem like something cavemen used. It’s a world in which reality and virtual reality have nearly merged, where everything is networked, where everyone wears computers woven into their clothing and can instantly chat with anyone anywhere in the world (via a virtual face-to-face meeting, or through silent messaging — “sming”). As Robert learns to adapt to his new environment, he and the other characters become embroiled in events that demonstrate the complexities such a future might entail.
There are quite a few different technological facets that the book is built from. One of the biggest is what has been called “digital Gaia.” Everything in this future world has embedded processors — buildings, roadways, anything you can name, every manufactured item there is — and these processors are networked so the location and status of every object is instantly available. In these notes for one of his talks, Vinge said:
In this situation, physical reality becomes its own database and cyberspace leaks out into the real world.
Another major element is computer-mediated reality, a kind of virtual reality everyone creates for themselves using their own wearable computer and special contact lenses which provide various overlays on top of the real view. These can be used simply to view information, rather in the style of a head-up display, or to alter the visual appearance of your surroundings to any extent you desire. And these overlays can be shared with anyone else who is “wearing” and wants to tune in.
One of the big themes of the book is the increased problem of security in such a world. Vinge puts it like this:
The Red Queen’s Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.
One of the solutions presented is the Secure Hardware Environment, meaning every computer chip is designed so that it can be monitored by government, and thus impossible to subvert by criminals or terrorists. Vinge doesn’t delve into the inherent question of government abuse and privacy issues. Apparently the people of 2025 are all too willing to accept the SHE, especially since five years earlier Chicago was the victim of a nuclear attack by terrorists.
There is also YGBM (You-Gotta-Believe-Me) research, the effort to create mind-control technology. In fact, as the novel opens it seems someone has made a breakthrough in this area, and this is what drives the central action of the plot.. Then there’s JITT — “Just In Tme Training.” The basic idea is familiar in sf: the downloading of information into the human brain so that something can be almost instantly learned. JITT, for all its promise, has a serious downside — people often get “stuck” on the downloaded content and suffer a kind of mental breakdown. Also prominent in the book is the advancement of medical science in the future, with its cures for many serious diseases. It’s even possible for those rich enough to commission cures for their own particular conditions. This is partly due to the intensely networked society which allows, as never before, the easy sharing and cross-referencing of information and the ability to collaborate with any number of people all around the world.
Another technological aspect is the digitization of physical books, portrayed in the subplot about the Librareome Project, which destroys whole libraries of books in the process of converting them to digital form. On one level, this didn’t seem realistic at all, since such digitization could be accomplished without destroying the books. On the other hand, the explanation was that the powerfully-connected company in charge wanted the books gone, so they would have a limited-time monopoly on licensing rights to the digital database of all human literature. The corporate greed and corruption certainly did seem realistic.
Finally, there is also the possibility that a certain mysterious character is in fact an artificial intelligence. At the end, it is still unclear whether or not this was the case, but the possibility is there.
So you can see, there’s a lot going on in this novel from a technological standpoint. But it’s not just an attempt to “wow” the reader; Vinge presents a sober look at both the technology and how it might affect society. And it’s a story told through the eyes of people with real human concerns, portrayed with a strong sense of characterization. This novel deals not only with hard scientific topics, but with softer issues as well, such as generation gaps and how different age groups see each other, and family estrangement and making up for past mistakes. Whatever angle you want to take — the intriguing technology, the high-action thriller-espionage plot, or the human aspect — this is a book you can’t go wrong with.