(Reviewed by Ann Wilkes SEP 30, 2006)
Vinge paints a compelling picture of the future in his latest novel, Rainbows End. He extrapolates from current technology with an inspired imagination. I can well believe that some of the software and interfaces that he describes will one day become commonplace.
Set in San Diego, California around 2025, the story begins with a clandestine meeting (mostly virtual presences) of international spies who hire "the rabbit" to get them access to a lab without the lab or the government knowing. The rabbit, who reveals himself via a 3D avatar that looks like something between the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and Bugs Bunny, is chosen for his legendary ability to orchestrate people and resources without any of the participants ever seeing the big picture. But would that very talent turn on them? Everyone at the meeting has their own agenda but one of them plans a double-cross. Can he outsmart Rabbit, too?
My mind flashed on the rabbit tattoo from The Matrix (the first movie, the only one really worth watching a second time). The movie opens with Neo's computer screen displaying a typed message outside of the operating system. Speaking directly to him, it tells him to follow the rabbit. Just then, someone comes to the door with the tattoo on her shoulder. And indeed the rabbit leads him down a rabbit hole.
Vinge's rabbit hole is a series of warrens that span the globe; a cyber warren, that is, in a world in which people wear their computers and rarely use "normal, naked eye view" to see the world around them. Layers and layers that switch at the imperceptible gesture from the wearer of computational clothing and contact lenses. Truly a wonderland.
When we meet Robert Gu, he's blind, can only hear snatches of disjointed conversations and he lives in the past. He's trapped under the heavy blanket of Alzheimer's. His dementia, disabilities and degeneration, prevent him from accessing even the "normal view" around him. But Robert's unique composition of physical traits, diseases and degeneration combine to make a miracle cure possible; he wins the "medical lotto." We wake with him from the fog and confusion as he sees, at last, his surroundings. This emergence in itself is worth the read. Vinge makes the sensations real for us. We are connected to this character and hungrily push on to see where his new life takes him.
Robert lives with his son, a lieutenant colonel in an expeditionary force of the Marines. Bob Jr.'s wife is a USMC colonel specializing in ferreting out terrorist plots and his daughter, Miri, is affectionately referred to as the little general for her bossiness. Young Miri takes Robert under her wing but finds a more indirect approach is required for her cantankerous grandfather. Robert, a master poet before his decline, goes back to school again as many "retreads" do, to catch up with recent developments in technology and find their way back to a career. He attends the same school as his granddaughter.
Robert's first week of school, he's expected to give an oral presentation. He delivers a poem that impresses the composition class. A teenager named Juan approaches Robert after class.
"His gaze came up to Robert's face and then flickered away. It was a look of awe that might have really meant something if the speaker had been anyone worthwhile."
His teenage classmate asks him to team up for a project.
"Robert gave Juan a kindly smile, and just as the kid brightened, he said, 'Well, young man, I think it will be a cold day in hell before I team with an old fool like Winston Blount--or a young fool such as yourself.'
Zing. The boy stumbled back almost as if Robert had punched him in the face. Robert walked on, smiling. It was a small thing, but like the poem, it was a start."
Robert meets some old friends who have also been "reborn" with modern medicine. He joins their "elder cabal" that plots to save what's left of the real books from the shredder. He's going along not for the books or any lofty ideals, but at the urging of a mysterious stranger who has made him a secret offer.
Everyone in the novel thinks they are in control of themselves and some of the people around them. The intrigue and drama propel the story but the actual goal of the uppermost layer of puppeteers could use more explanation and resolution, in this reader's opinion.
However, near the end, instead of mattering more, it seemed to matter less as Vinge hits his stride with the human element. The reader is too caught up in the effect that the immediate events have on the characters, to worry about the big picture. His characters grow and change through the trials they endure. Perhaps the author is as caught up as the reader in his own characters. The details and purpose behind the plotting become secondary. In the end, this reader felt as conflicted as the characters: satisfied with the human drama but needing more of the blanks filled in for the bigger picture. But, as in many fine novels, the story is about who the characters are and what, on a gut level, they truly need or want. The plot is all the stuff that trips them up.
While you might scratch your head at the end of Rainbows End, you'll also have a smile on your face as you reflect on the story for days. That's always a plus.
- Amazon readers rating: from 103 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Grimm's World (1969) revised as Tatja Grimm's World (1987)
- The Witling (1975)
- The Peace War (1984)*
- Marooned in Realtime (1986)*
- The Collected Stories (2001)
- Rainbow Ends (May 2006)
Zones of Thought:
* Collected as Across Realtime
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- Wikipeida page on Vernor Vinge
- Salon.com on Vernor Vinge
- Vernor Vinge paper on The Singularity (1993)
- Guardian Unlmited on Vernor Vinge
- Strange Horizons interview with Vernor Vinge
- Plokta News Network review of A Deepness in the Sky
- Danny Yee's review of A Fire Upon the Deep
- Strange Horizons review of A Fire Upon the Deep
- Review of the short story Fast Times at Fairmont High
- Guardian Unlimited review Rainbow End
- Strange Horizons review of Rainbows End
- Chapter excerpt for Children of the Sky
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About the Author:
Vernor Vinge (rhymes with stingy) was born in 1944 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He is a mathematician and computer scientist, and has been retired from San Diego State University since 2002 to write full-time.
Vinge published is first short story in 1965 and was a moderatly prolific contributor in the 60s and 70s. It was his Novella, True Names, that brought him to prominence in 1981. It was the earliest story (even before Neuromancer) to describe cyberspace. Vinge has won the Hugo Award four times, twice for his novels (A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky) and twice for short stories (Fast Times at Fairmont High and The Cookie Monster).
His ex-wife is Science Fiction writer Joan D. Vinge.