Review of Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
by Vernor Vinge
A few weeks ago, Bruce Sterling shared his thoughts on hacking and activism three years after first discussing the Wikileaks scandal. One thing he said really stuck with me:
Even the electronic civil lib contingent is lying to themselves. They’re sore and indignant now, mostly because they weren’t consulted — but if the NSA released PRISM as a 99-cent Google Android app, they’d be all over it. Because they are electronic first, and civil as a very distant second.
They’d be utterly thrilled to have the NSA’s vast technical power at their own command. They’d never piously set that technical capacity aside, just because of some elderly declaration of universal human rights from 1947. If the NSA released their heaps of prying spycode as open-source code, Silicon Valley would be all over that, instantly. They’d put a kid-friendly graphic front-end on it. They’d port it right into the cloud.
It’s sad because he’s right. And I think we are moving in that direction.
In Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge capitalizes on a lot of upcoming technology that is quite hot today (but, when this was published seven years ago, made him slightly ahead of the curve). One particular novum is the proliferation of wearable computing surfaces. Not only are there flexible touchscreens, but one can get virtually any type of clothing with embedded microprocessors, haptic feedback, and sensors. (Vinge does not go into how people make use of Internet-enabled underwear, but I think we all know.) This isn’t actually science fiction—it’s science fact. Google Glass is just the first step towards the contact lenses that Vinge’s characters use. I see 2025, the book’s setting, as a totally realistic time-frame in which wearable computing becomes ubiquitous in the richer countries.
And when that happens, when you are literally wearing a camera on your body (one that can pan 360°), conventional ideas of privacy as we know it are over. Vinge portrays this perfectly when he demonstrates how easy it is for Miri and her gang to track Robert when he is in public (i.e., not at home). Having ambient intelligence in one’s clothes and in public spaces will be a great boon, but it will also usher in the perpetual surveillance society. (The upside, if you can call it that, is that everyone has access to this surveillance, not just the government.)
As you might be able to tell, Rainbows End struck a topical chord for me. I wouldn’t say this made me enjoy the book more, but it definitely made me sit up and take notice. I began to track the way that Vinge explores the logical consequences of his technological extrapolations in order to see how it compares to what I observe in society today. In this respect, as a work of social science-fiction, Rainbows End is absolutely fascinating. It’s also, unfortunately, rather shallow.
Vinge gives us a world that is completely believable. Machines are all iPod-like tethered appliances with “no user-serviceable parts inside”. Teenagers in 2025 are much teenagers kids in 2013, in that they have their own dialect of slang and jargon that adults can barely penetrate. Wearable computer has also cemented the place of augmented reality, and teenagers are the digital natives of that brave new virtual multiverse. But for all these broad strokes, Vinge never really convinces me that the world has changed much as a consequence of all this technology.
For example, what do people do? How has wearable computing, ubiquitous surveillance, and self-driving cars changed the job market? There are occasional references to elderly people retraining because their jobs no longer exist. But Miri’s parents are conveniently military. Aside from academics, we don’t really see many other professions or trades in play. I think this is a shame. While it does not behove an author to give everyone a tour of their entire world, they do need to show off enough for it to feel tangible. I believe that the technology in Vinge’s future could exist and work like it does, but I’m not as convinced he explores the consequences as fully as he could.
Rainbows End combines a fish-out-of-water story with the threat of an international conspiracy to control the world through subliminal viral engineering. We learn almost immediately that a character who is ostensibly a good guy is actually a bad guy, a revelation that I found was a flattering form of dramatic irony—oh, you trust me, the reader, enough to let me in on this from the start? The antagonist’s motivations are a little melodramatic, in the sense that I understand where they come from, but I’m not sure that I can believe a single person would actually undertake a project of this scale.
There are also rumblings of nascent artificial intelligence in the persona of Rabbit. I won’t go into spoiler territory by explaining any further, but I will say that I was disappointed. (This is probably the least realistic technology as well; I find the predictions of 2050 for an AI far too optimistic.) It’s not that I was disappointed by how Vinge clears up the mystery so much as, again, he doesn’t seem to explore much of the consequences.
A part of me wonders if this is meant to be satire. If that were the case, a lot more would make sense. Robert’s one-dimensional surliness, Rabbit’s behaviour, the villain’s one-dimensional megalomaniacal power trip … this would all be excusable, laudable even, if Vinge were satirizing, as a form of commentary, the society that he sees us becoming. The gross and excessive use of force during a university protest would demonstrate how we are growing used to the escalation of police action. The digitization of books through destructive shredding would, in its very absurdity, demonstrate how our obsession with the newest, greatest digital technology can be shortsighted.
And part of me really hopes this is satire, because if not, then it’s a flat book. It’s full of brilliant ideas and a scarily believable depiction of the distribution of technology in twelve years … but as a story, and that is the essential metric, it barely registers.
Alas, as with so much in this book, Vinge does not quite convince me that this is a satire. It might be the marketing, which seems content to sell this as a straight-up techno-thriller. Or it could be the few, genuine attempts at tragedy—the way that Alice and Bob’s relationship is on rocky ground because she has gone back into the military’s dangerous just-in-time training program, the fact that Lena still won’t return Robert’s letters.
I don’t regret reading Rainbows End, for it was a reliable romp through a pre-Singularity vision of the future. It pushes some of my technophilic geek buttons, and as far as the plot goes, it is at least coherently written. I just wish its characters had been more captivating and its story much more meaningful.