Volume 24, Number 04, Summer, 2006

Rainbows End

By Vernor Vinge

Tor, 2006, $24
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
July 2006

Rainbows End is a change of pace from Vernor Vinge’s recent novels, especially from the interstellar adventures of A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. In some ways it’s a return to the concerns of his classic “True Names”; in others it’s an entirely new departure for his writing.

The setting of this novel is Earth in the near future. No radical new technologies have emerged; instead there has been continued progress along lines that can be extrapolated from current technology and scientific thought. Life extension, genetic engineering, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and the amplification of human intelligence through networking are all part of everyday life. Much of the character interaction in story takes place through the exchange of secret messages over electronic channels, so that two or three layers of conversation can be going on in parallel. The effect is rather like that of recent anime series such as Ghost in the Shell, where voiceovers and on-screen text displays carry on multiple narrative tracks. Vinge’s parallel narratives were easy to keep track of, thanks to some simple but ingenious typographic conventions—and careful choices of viewpoint.

Part of this novel is about large-scale social effects of this new technology. The political landscape of Vinge’s future Earth is also a close extrapolation from the current world, in much more detail than that of “True Names.” Three superpowers dominate the world: China, the United States, and the Indo-European Alliance (a clever pun!), which includes Japan as well as Europe and India. Despite rivalries, all three mainly want to keep the world stable and prevent the sudden emergence of new technological threats—either old-fashioned weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands, or dangerous new possibilities such as YGBM, “you gotta believe me,” a psychological technology that allows irresistible persuasion. One of this novel’s themes is the methods used to defend against such threats.

These include military force, and Vinge shows us a small-scale military action in the course of the novel. But much more important is intelligence, in both senses of the word: human and military. Several major characters work for intelligence agencies of various nations. Vinge envisions a radically different approach to intelligence, summed up by one of his characters in an early chapter: “A government crash program? That’s twentieth-century foolishness. Market demands are always more effective. You just have to fool the market into cooperating.” Decentralized networks of analysts provide operatives and mission planners with real-time solutions to complex problems. But managing such resources demands highly skilled people, and strains even their capabilities.

At the same time, networking and covert communication aren’t the exclusive property of secret agencies. In many parts of the world, everyone has them, even high school students. Much of the story takes place at a high school in San Diego county, attended not only by adolescents but by a number of elderly people, beneficiaries of new medical technology, in need of rehabilitation and instruction in the new essential skills. Much of this novel is about two students at that school: Miriam Gu, a very bright girl of 14, and her grandfather, Robert Gu, recently successfully treated for Alzheimer’s syndrome.

This focus on family life is itself something of a departure for Vinge; a lot of his previous heroes have been loners, either by choice or because circumstances isolated them from social relationships. The characterization of Robert Gu is a bigger departure. Over the course of the novel, Vinge shows him as a brilliant but thoroughly unpleasant man, one who succeeded in poisoning every importance relationship in his life—and is now setting out to do the same with his granddaughter. The struggle between his hostility and her desire to take care of him makes up a large part of the story, and one that Vinge handles skillfully.

The plot of this book links the two stories together, simply but ingeniously, and resolves both of them in a long-sustained climax—even longer, in fact, than that in A Deepness in the Sky. Vinge has gotten steadily better at maintaining high narrative tension.

This novel is less overtly spectacular than most of Vinge’s previous fiction; much of its drama is in its implications. And its choice of an unsympathetic viewpoint character may make it difficult for some readers to get into. But it has a lot of major virtues: an ingenious and dramatic plot, complex human relationships, and a first-rate job of indirect exposition.

Libertarian readers may be ambivalent about the world Vinge reveals. It’s not radically transformed in the way we would like to see. In some ways the governments of this future setting are more powerful and more intrusive than ever. But at the same time, they accept both market relationships and decentralized cognitive networks, working with them as tools rather than trying to replace them—this is a thoroughly postsocialist world.

The relationship between the market and military force is a major problem for libertarian theory, possibly even its single biggest challenge. Military action has its own institutional logic, its own law, and even its own ethics. Can someone who accepts these—a soldier, or a spy—be a defender of freedom? Many science fiction novels have explored this conflict. Vinge has given us an important new fictional treatment of it, one that libertarian readers should pay attention to—and hope that he’s right in saying yes, because if he’s wrong, the prospects of freedom are poor.

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