Rainbow's End

I'm getting close to the end of the stack of books to review. I've been catching up on magazines lately, and over the weekend I reread Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the sixth book), but my deal is that I only review first-time reads in this space. Otherwise I'd have to review Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books every six months or so. That's no good to anybody. But what's on tonight's plate is Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End.

I have to admit, Vinge is one of my sci-fi gaps. I've read A Fire Upon the Deep, and a few titles of his who escape me now (in my teenaged library-rat years, as opposed my current "buy all the books you want and write 'em off on taxes state), but I've never read Marooned in Realtime, and the true horror for a cyberpunk fan - I've never read True Names. I've also never read his original essay about the Singularity, even though it has conceptually dominated so much of recent science fiction. But I recently did read his latest book - Rainbow's End.

Rainbow's End isn't actually set in (or post) the Singularity. Rather it's a near-Singularity universe. It tells the story of Robert Gu, who was once a famous poet and then later succumbed to Alzheimer's. Years later new treatments can cure his particular set of symptoms and he pretty much Rip Van Winkles into a world where he's missed ten to fifteen (I don't think it's every made clear) years. This lets Vinge play around with the trend lines leading up to the Singularity without quite crossing it.

I don't think I've ever written about the Singularity here. In brief the idea is that if technological curves continue to accelerate that a point occurs in history that is a Singularity. Whatever is on the other side isn't recognizably human, and it's impossible to comprehend what motivates them. In many books this is caused by creating a smarter-than-human AI or by the ability to back up (and restore) a human personality/mind/spirit and memory set. (Whether that includes a soul or not is a frequent point of contention in such fiction.) But it's a key tenet that humans just cannot understand what is on the other side. For a while this meant the fiction was gloomy, but recently there's been a surge of work around the Singularity. In Stross's Accelerando the humans continue to co-exist with the post-Singularity superhuman intelligences, even though the humans cannot possibly understand what motivates what they call the "Vile Offspring".

Anyways, back to Rainbow's End. With Robert Gu we have a viewpoint character who can follow the technological changes, but just barely. There's a fairly big deal made about him picking a Microsoft UI that he knows (Windows ME), and getting a dumbed down terminal running that UI for him. Modern users have "wearables" - contact lenses that project net information in reality and clothes that can sense gestures. Robert starts off with a flexible portable viewscreen, but eventually ends up going back to school to learn basic skills for the new tech. There's a "vocational" track that has some loser kids scraping by and a collection of back-from-the-dead old-timers like Gu.

Gu's story of vocational training is not the main plot either. He gets tangled up in a major plot hinging on the creation of effective mind control technology and there's also a major plotline about secure computing - the net of the future runs on some sort of trusted hardware base, but cracks are showing in the "trusted" nature of the platform.

The technology in all of this seems pretty solid. While I wouldn't bet money that this will be the user interface of 2025, it's not implausible right now either. The subplots around Gui's restoration, his family relations, and whether he's even the same person he used to be are all interesting but I think it gets a bit too much for the book to handle right at the end. I like the book but the ending gets a bit jumbled up. It becomes difficult to track who is concealing what from who, and the fact that our main viewpoint character is really just stumbling around in the bigger plot elements doesn't help.

If you're interested in reasonably hard SF about where the internet is going and how the virtual worlds will continue to intersect with ours I'd easily recommend reading this. Just be aware the ending gets a little mushy. Most everything important resolves, but the climax of the book just seems slightly out of focus.

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