Monday, November 22, 2010

Rainbows End

I've just finished reading this book for my book group and am astonished to find that, although I read it for the first time some two and a half years ago, I don't seem to have written about it. And now I find myself constrained by my responsibilities to my book group to not go into a lot of detail. So suffice to say, if you have any interest in futurism, you need to go find this book. It is perhaps the most worthy Hugo winner in some time.

Vernor Vinge's novel of the near-future, where schools have curricula to help the technologically challenged adapt to a fast-paced world a great deal of which can only be perceived with the assistance of extremely portable (wearable!) computers, has the feel of a scarily accurate prediction of the future. In Rainbows End, the reader can see the descendants of Stephenson's Snow Crash and Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, where the change in technology is not done for the benefit of humanity but for corporate profit, with widespread and unexpected effect. Vinge imagines a world where debilitating disease and old age can sometimes be treated, but his story does not stop there; instead, he wonders how the recipients of such gifts would deal with a world that has otherwise moved past them. The protagonist, Nobel poet laureate Robert Gu, is just such a patient: after years in a cognitive fugue because of Alzheimers, he "wakes up" to rational and rememberable thoughts, suddenly a physically young man with a lifetime that once seemed lost to deal with. The family he emotionally abused, including an ex-wife and adult son, have bitter memories of his treatment of them, and they have to deal with those as well as the "new" man before them, as Gu must acclimate himself to a brand new culture, much as a child has to learn to function in its world.

How well Gu and his family adapt to the changes forms the core of Rainbows End, but there is so much more to this novel. Parallel to the changes in medicine are the changes to the Internet and how it is accessed, and the unexpected results of those changes as well. Concepts like belief circles, widely scattered people who share the same interest connected and empowered by the Internet, are introduced. While they exist to some extent today, the vastly more powerful Internet of Vinge's near future in turn make belief circles far more powerful as well. Vinge imagines wars between them, played out virtually but with very real repercussions.

Vinge also imagines that, if computers can become wearable, then they can be used to tailor our perceptions of the real world as well. Imagine Google Earth, with its different overlays, transported to a pair of glasses or contact lenses. The user could flip through whatever filters appeal to them as they look at their surroundings. Not only would you be able to see what your hometown looked like 100 years ago, you could also walk through that town. Gaming companies take up this technology and make it so their players will always be playing the game, always immersed if they choose to be. Not enjoying your daily commute? Make it a flight between planets on a starship!

Vinge pulls no punches—Gu is not a very likable man. Vinge is not sympathetic to him at all, which just makes the narrative that much stronger in its unbiasedness. We do get to hear Gu's rationalization for the way he acts since those sections are written in omniscient voice, but Vinge does not elaborate or editorialize on them. This realistic portrayal of his characters is reflected in the rest of his narrative as well. The realism combined with the comfortableness of Vinge's narrative voice gives Rainbows End—packed with so many ideas, any one of which could form the basis for entire novels in another author's hands—a clarity and power that is breathtaking. At its core a simple story—a man reconnecting with his estranged family—but so very much more. Rainbows End may well be one of the first speculative fiction classics of the 21st century.

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