Friday, September 10, 2010

Recent Reading: Rainbows End

by Vernor Vinge

I picked this up a few months back, but I took a while to finish it, with various interruptions - which may be a sign about how much enthusiasm it didn't inspire in me, but could of course just be a sign of the men-over-45-don't-read-many-novels syndrome.

I was interested in it because I've quite liked some Vinge I've read in the past, and I was curious as to what he would do, as a fairly seriously hard SF writer with an interest in genuine futurology, with a near-future setting. The problem, perhaps, is that what he does is a bit too much like some of his far-future stories. He wants to tell a sprawling multi-stranded tale of wonders, but he tries to cram it into the more constraining bounds of an international espionage tale and a school story.

Yes, both. The plots are also crammed together with a story about an aged Alzheimer's victim who turns out to respond exceptionally well to new medical treatments, and who therefore finds himself more or less restored to youth. The strands are interlocked moderately competently - the restored geriatric is obliged to attend the school in order to learn his way around the brave new world of 2020-ish, allowing for a certain amount of low key touring of the balloon factory, while his family become the key to a multi-layered espionage plot - but there's a sense of excessive coincidence, and some moderately odd behaviour from one or two characters that mostly happens to drive the plot. Vinge plays with some interesting ideas about near-future developments in computer interfaces and large-scale networked decision support, but this leads to some odd, unexamined problems; for example, if a character is engaging in a deeply secret, incredibly illegal and morally dubious long-term project, could he really maintain a large network of online consultant-advisers without worrying whether one or two of them might, you know, work out what they're involved in and blow the whistle in a fit of conscience?

In fact, the human elements are some of the least convincing parts of this story. The central character, the rejuvenated geriatric, comes across as an annoyed hard-science academic's parody of an annoying, self-indulgent artist-intellectual, and is only patchily convincing, either in himself or in his response to his situation. We also get the bizarre situation of a school full of teenagers, plus some elderly people in newly youthful bodies, one of them that self-indulgent, emotionally manipulative poet-intellectual, where nobody even seems to think about sex for almost all of the book. I wasn't look for soft porn or bad comedy, but I was looking for either plausible human behaviour or some explanation why human norms might have changed so radically by this point in the near future. But answer came there none. Libido suppressants in the water supply, maybe.

Vinge's view of the information-saturated future isn't that deep, either. After most of the book has talked about such matters, the climactic scene is largely driven by someone's attempts to extract a physical object from a sealed location - a physical maguffin whose information content is all that matters, really. Also, about half-way through the book, some of the characters discuss whether one of the others might be, well, something which William Gibson established as a bit of a cyberpunk cliche decades ago. The characters dismiss the idea out of hand. It's not giving away much to say that it seemingly turns out to be correct. How this could have come about in the time between now and the novel's present isn't very clear to me, mind, but that's another of Vinge's problems; he wants all these wonderful things to have come into existence in the near future, but his plot needs them to have been around for a fairly long time, so that they can have had consequences. (It also needs a few moderately substantial political shifts, such as India becoming a global power player.)

The novel does have some decent ideas, and one or two characters it's possible to care about, for good or ill, even if a lot of them are a bunch of smug, shallow technocrats. But then, in the end, it shambles to a slightly confused and incomplete conclusion, leaving the fate of some of those characters unclear and with enough semi-loose ends that I wonder if we're supposed to be looking for a sequel. I'm not, though, really; I suspect that Vinge is at his best when he looks into the far rather than the near future. It's a shame; I was hoping that he could write short, snappy books that I could enjoy, as well as his interesting but physical-strain-inducing doorstops, and I hoped that he could do some good near-term futurology. But he's really not as sharp or convincing as, say, Greg Egan, or the better cyberpunks; for all his forward-looking pose, he's an older-generation skiffy writer, and it shows.


Anonymous said...

I rather agree with your summation, and the book didn't leave very much impression on me, though - have you read Vinge's True Names (1981)? It's where Gibson got the idea for cyberspace, and very probably also his source for that other cliche to which you allude. I wonder whether this book is Vinge trying to recapture the era in which he was taken moderately seriously in terms of things he said about the real world.

-- Firedrake

Phil Masters said...

No, never got around to tracking down a copy. Doubtless should, some time.

William H. Stoddard said...

I like Rainbows End rather better than you did, though I have to agree that it's not Vinge at his best. I was impressed by the fact that it's ultimately a story of redemption, and that the person being redeemed is so thoroughly in need of redemption . . . and indeed, in demonstrating this, Vinge asks the reader to spend many pages inside the mind of a thoroughly unpleasant human being, one who does not even recognize his own better impulses.

I'd also note that the scene where Alice is losing her mental functions during the attack, and is desperately trying to tell Robert what's happened, was one I found quite moving, though I didn't get it the first time I read the book.

In terms of plot construction, Vinge has shown an increased willingness to write books that end in sustained climax . . . the final third of A Deepness in the Sky, the final half of this book. I'm impressed by how well he brings them off, though more so by Deepness, I must concede.