by Vernor Vinge
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 24, 2019
Rainbows End won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2007. My copy is from the SFBC, but I bought it used, not directly from the club. I had started reading it once before, close to a decade ago I guess, but didn't get too far into it. This time I persevered, but it was still a struggle, and took way longer than it should. I didn't connect with it at all, couldn't care for the characters (with one exception) or what was happening to them. It was hard generating the interest to finish, then when I did I had the same problem with writing this review. I'm normally good at visualizing characters and situations while I read, but not in this case. The fault might be my own, not the book's. I may have missed several things that would have made it more comprehensible.
It's set in 2025, in and around San Diego. Vinge had originally created this milieu in an earlier award-winner, the novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High" from 2001, which I have not read. In this near future scenario internet technology has developed to the point where people access information by "wearing," through electronically enhanced smart clothing and contact lenses. Secret Messaging, which is projected from the lenses in front of the user, is used between individuals or groups, and people can project their voice or virtual appearance over great distances. Signals are acquired from ubiquitous access points, and we later learn virtual projections can be hacked. Of course, since nearly any technology can be hacked. With that in mind, it's hard to believe people would trust such technologies. Fantasy scenarios are overlayed onto reality, with the most common ones, known as "belief circles," being sponsored. These are patterned after familiar worlds such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, H. P. Lovecraft, or Bollywood, as well as some from Vinge's imagination, such as the author Jerzy Hacek. I suspect the Bollywood personas known as Scooch-a-mouts are patterned after Pokémon. In the midst of all this tech are a few older characters who are tech-averse, including Robert Gu, famous poet and Alzheimer's victim, now the beneficiary of a revolutionary new cure. He had been a resident of Rainbows End, an assisted living facility, but now lives with his son and daughter-in-law, both military intelligence officers, and their daughter Miri. Robert is taking remedial classes at nearby Fairmont High School, which Miri also attends.
There are multiple subplots going on, but hardly anything is resolved. Vinge has spoken of a proposed sequel, but that hasn't happened yet. In the beginning it seemed to be about a biological contagion, which may or may not have been the result of secretive experiments in bio-labs at the University of California, San Diego. An intelligence operative from the Indo-European Union is behind those experiments, which he justifies to himself as a way to "save the world," but he has to hide that from his colleagues and figure out a way to divert attention away from him. In the first chapter, he and two other agents, one from Germany, the other from Japan, meet in Barcelona, where they are approached by a virtual character that presents as a large rabbit. Rabbit tells them he can help track down the source of the contagion. All of their espionage capabilities are unable to pinpoint Rabbit's location, but their best guess is somewhere in the US. Rabbit's motivations are unclear, and their identity is never revealed, but it might be an AI consciousness. Rabbit also makes contact with some of the younger students at Fairmont High, as well as professors and staff at UCSD's Geisel Library. Robert is contacted by someone identifying themselves as the "Mysterious Stranger." Is that also Rabbit, or someone else? Also never revealed. They promise Robert they will help with the recovery of his poetical talent, which he seems to have lost due to the Alzheimer's. Rabbit (or the Stranger) also promises to help others obtain what they most desire. The UCSD staff are concerned about the Librareome project, a digitization of books accomplished by scanning them at the same time they are being shredded. The anti-shredding contingent clash with pro-shredders in a riot that masks an infiltration of the bio-labs.
I was perpetually confused and frustrated. As I said above, I had a hard time visualizing events, especially all the fantasy overlaying reality. Some of the actions of the belief circles may have been purely virtual, but if I'm not mistaken some of them were able to control various types of robots too, so they must have had a physical effect. I also had a hard time understanding the tactics of the military in response to the riot. Was that mostly virtual as well, or did Robert Gu, Jr., in command of the surveillance group at Camp Pendleton, physically land on the campus? So many elements that could have been served better by a longer book, or sequels. Then again, not sure I could have taken a longer book, and nothing about this one would compel me to read a sequel either. This is the only Hugo or Nebula nominated work from that year that I've read, so I can't say how it compares, but I can't recommend it.
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