BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In 2025, Robert Gu, poet extra-ordinaire, is cured of Alzheimer’s, but at the cost of his talent. While trying to cope with a high-tech future he doesn’t remember living to, he becomes embroiled in a plot to perfect a ‘biological’ super weapon.
PROS: Interesting future, cool technology
CONS: Somewhat Byzantine plot, fairly flat characters
BOTTOM LINE: A SF thriller that does a good job of creating a believable, high tech future.
In 2025, the world is a fractured place, seemingly waiting for the next terrorist threat to arise. As a result, the world’s intelligence agencies have banded together to watch and protect against the next big threat. At a soccer match, a seemingly innocuous advertisement induces thousands of people to immediately purchase the product advertised. After analysis, it is determined that someone is working on a YGBM (You-Gotta-Believe-Me) weapon, in other words, a mind control weapon. In an effort to stop the perpetrators, the agencies track the threat to a lab at The University Of California-San Diego and enlist the aid of enigmatic hacker ‘Rabbit’.
Meanwhile, Robert Gu, due to modern medical techniques, has been cured of Alzheimer’s Disease. Realizing that he is hopelessly lost in the modern world, he enrolls in education classes at Fairmont High to try to integrate into the new world. While there, he encounters a cabal of UCSD faculty trying to protect the library from the destructive digitizing process being contemplated. He, and his cohorts, also become unwitting pawns in Rabbit’s attempt to crack into the UCSD labs.
What Vinge has done well here is the depiction of future society and the technology employed by its citizens. Much of the computing power available is contained in the clothes people wear, including contacts that contain miniature displays. This allows for the very cool use of ‘augmented’, or overlay, realities. If you want, you can tap into any of the user created overlay realities and see that super-imposed on top of the real reality. One of the augmented realities is created by Terry Pratchett fans and London has been turned into a virtual Ank-Morpork. Very cool, especially considering there are thousands to choose from. Additionally, realities can compete in the arena of public favor, with the winner becoming the default virtual reality for a given location. Of course, learning to use the technology to access all this comes with a steep learning curve, hence Gu’s attendance at Fairmont High. This, for me, was the best part of the book. The tech and how its used in various situations felt right, even if the UI seemed to be cumbersome and unwieldy (each person’s UI is different, and relies on custom created finger movements and body gestures). The future world also felt believable, but at the extreme end. But then again, given the pace of technological advance, its hard to imagine what the world will look like in twenty years. Still, it felt real enough for the story.
For me, the plot itself was rather difficult to follow what exactly was going on on, and why. True, the person behind the YGBM program is revealed early on, which I found a surprising story choice, but his machinations to remain undiscovered bordered on Byzantine. Also, the entity known as Rabbit is never revealed. We don’t know if it is a person or an AI. In fact, there seems to be a lack of AIs in general in this future Earth. The path that brings Robert Gu into Rabbit’s use is a bit convoluted, even if it does have cool aspects, such as the destructive digitizing process the Geissel Library is undergoing. Think of the Google library project writ large, with the books being destroyed in the process of being recorded. Rabbit uses the protest against this process as cover for his infiltration of the UCSD labs.
Additionally, Robert Gu, at the beginning, is not a sympathetic character. He is used to being smarter than most people, and his ego reflects this. Unfortunately for him, he realizes his poetic ability seems to have been a casualty of his cure, and he seems to mellow quite a bit. However, Rabbit uses the promise of regaining his muse as the carrot to get Gu to work for him. This is pretty much the extent of the character growth in the book. All the other characters are what they are, regardless of the events that happen to them. I also found the ending to be a tad abrupt, but I’ve since learned that there is a sequel planned. This may explain the sense of disconnect I felt throughout the book, as things just didn’t seem to resolve right.
Maybe, after being impressed quite a bit with A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness In The Sky, I was expecting to be blown away and I wasn’t and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Rainbows End is still a very good book to read, it just seemed to lack something the others had, whatever that may be, possibly being a victim of my own expectations. Still, Vinge has done a great job of extrapolating current tech into a believable and technologically cool, future Earth.