Sunday, October 29, 2006

Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End is a near future story, centered around the same San Diego high school as his Hugo-winning 2002 novella Fast Times at Fairmont High. This is a fun story to read, but not up to the standards of his galaxy-spanning stories. As a matter of fact, I thought Fast Times was more effective, though it's a trope that it's easier to write a punchy short story than an effective full-length novel.

In Rainbows End, we watch Robert Gu recover from alzheimer's after getting a newly introduced therapy. As Gu regains his mental faculties, he realizes that he's lost some of his strengths, and that he'll have to develop new abilities in order to cope with the world as it has become. The bout of alzheimer's provides a nice plot device to allow Gu to skip forward in time, missing a period of technological development and having to catch up. In Vinge's future, society has caught on to the fact of Future Shock, and provides special classes to give people who have slept through the accelerating change a chance to catch up. It's not quite a singularity, but there are certainly many people who were left behind and have realized that coping with daily life requires more familiarity with modern technology (consensual reality, ubiquitous private instant messaging, sophisticated wearables, tools and transportation that can only be controlled from personal remotes that everyone is assumed to carry.)

The large-scale conflict that drives the story concerns electronic security, and a biotech development that threatens people around the world. The plotters are a global cabal, with their fingers in every pie and the ability to subvert many of the underlying technologies. Gu's circle includes counter-terrorism specialists as well as loving family members who use the ubiquitous surveillance technology activities to follow his activities when there are hints that he's involved in events beyond his recovering abilities.

Libertarians will find much to ponder in the ubiquitous surveillance, the government's fundamental control of the foundations of technologies, and the shape of this not-too-unlikely future. But most of this is simply background for the story here, and Vinge doesn't bother to say or even imply much about the implications for freedom or personal responsibility. Some of the plotters seem to be able to pursue the plots because of the power they get from their role in government, but they are stopped by people who wield government power wisely and benignly.

This is a good book, but not a great one. I don't think it will be a strong contender for the Prometheus Award this year.

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