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Rainbows End
Vernor Vinge
Tor hardcover $25.95

review by Tony Lee

Set in a highly computerised San Diego, in the year 2025, Rainbows End charts the recovery to stable mental health of former Alzheimer's patient, Robert Gu, an almost forgotten poet of once legendary status who finds himself excluded from the modern cyber-enhanced world, adrift in a society of geeks tricked out in wearable computing devices enabling a commonplace and ubiquitous mixture of actual and virtual reality for those in the know. Robert's son, Bob, and daughter-in-law Alice, are high-ranking career officers in U.S. military intelligence, and bookish genius Robert is a somewhat unwelcome guest in their family home, where teenage granddaughter Miri, attempts to guide her medically rejuvenated 75-year-old relative through the future-shocking rigours of remedial adult-education at the local high school.

Meanwhile, there's an international conspiracy, concerning the widespread testing of an omnipotent bio-weapon, that steadily grows into Californian Armageddon proportions as the Marines and opposing forces lurch from data-analytical discovery to lock 'n' load confrontation, even while Robert becomes secretly (or so he imagines!) involved in a protest movement against the comprehensive destruction - for the supposed benefits of a scheme for digitising all pre-millennial literature - of a university library's books. After studying, alongside talented children, for end-of-term exams, and struggling to adapt his sadly archaic worldview to the fashionably irreverent subculture inhabiting such a formidably hi-tech landscape, the rehabilitated and upgraded Robert remains wholly unprepared for the very worst that can happen, and he faces moral dilemmas, emotional stress and mortal danger, when his entire family are drawn into, and then personally threatened by, the convoluted machinations of his old friends' elder cabal of nostalgia buffs, a sinister alliance of Euro-Asian spooks, and the mysterious entity known as 'Mr Rabbit'.

Published a quarter century since the advent of IBM desktop computing, four-time Hugo award-winner Vernor Vinge's latest novel (his first for about five years) looks ahead two decades to envision a future of drastically politicised, social and economic changes, where every apparent freedom is closely monitored by Homeland Security's control of the 'secure hardware environment'. It's a world in which you'd rarely need to call the cops; they just "happen to you." Although this book effortlessly maintains Vinge's reputation, by delivering the full quota of ideas-per-page we have to come to expect from him since he helped lead the way for a new re-visionary space opera in greatly imaginative novels such as A Fire Upon The Deep (1992), its prequel A Deepness Upon The Sky (1999), and memorable novella The Cookie Monster (2003), the major problem with Rainbows End is that its engagingly quirky, character-based dramas, and suspenseful counter-espionage plotline fail to develop into a suitably intense SF thriller. Unfortunately, this offers Vinge's fans a technothriller lacking any particular or worthwhile thrills.

Here, Vinge explores a fascinating, speculative near-future populated by some keenly sympathetic characters, and even the bad guys are interesting. But the trouble is that Rainbows End lacks the literary style of a William Gibson, the finely tuned narrative pacing and philosophical theorising of Bruce Sterling, or the sheer wackiness of Rudy Rucker. Vinge serves up a post-cyberpunk novel where the 'cyberpunks' are (perhaps more convincingly?) presented as merely techno-geeks (RPG action and VR backdrops abounds), and tends to view the youngsters' adventuring through the eyes and ears of disapproving parents or the yet more jaundiced eyes of isolated geriatrics all similarly disenfranchised by advanced computech gear that's worn by its users. Intriguing, and trendily named, as the wearable 'Epiphany' operating system is, the book mistakenly displays its science fictional communications' wares in obviously boring hyper-textual notation (like... Me --> You: < sm > silent messaging < /sm >) when many of today's SF readers would doubtlessly prefer a more attractive optional extra from the varied typographical styles available (hell, there's PDF list content here, anyway!)... Hmm, perhaps the book's designer or editor vetoed that idea for being overused in print magazines, or too postmodern?

Either way, typesetting is not the worst problem with Rainbows End. There's also an inevitably sour predictability, especially in the book's all-wrapped-up neatly happy-ending (suggestive of a novel ready for easy Hollywood adaptation), which brings its own disappointments, and the welcome amusements of Robert's initially perplexed response to encounters with virtuality are somewhat undermined when he proves to be so dislikeable and cruelly antisocial before tiredly getting over his arrogance and ego problems in the closing chapters. Another deficiency in this book is marked by Vinge's timidity in not offering any examples of the world-renowned poet Robert Gu's celebrated work. Well, I've said elsewhere and often that it's extremely hard if not impossible for an SF writer of any calibre to create main characters of believable genius, without first being a true genius himself. Vinge sidesteps the daunting complications of this by only alluding to Gu's world-class literary skills. We don't get any excerpts, just descriptions of the other characters' reactions to reading Gu's poetry.

Never mind the literary quality, then. Feel the bandwidth. Rainbows End is bursting with ecstatic views of the exciting cyber future probably awaiting us when, or if, all the government spooks, mega-corporate R&D mercenaries, and open source development gurus can reach consensus about the innovative shape and (hopefully) user-friendly manner of early 21st century's reality that consumers and techies alike really, really want.
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

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