Book Review: Rainbows End

“You live in a time that thinks it can ignore the human condition.”

Rainbows End took the Hugo– Vinge’s fifth– for best novel at WorldCon last August. It’s a strong entry, but arguably not Vinge’s best work.

Title: Rainbows End

Author: Vernor Vinge
ISBN: 978-0812536362
First published: 2006.
Chapters four and five use material from Vinge’s 2004 story, “Synthetic Serendipity.”

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In the near future, people routinely keep themselves wired to cyberspace, often overlaying the real world with the one they’d prefer to see. Instant messaging has evolved into virtual telepathy, and the potential to manipulate public events and private individuals has increased exponentially. In this story, media manipulation, library politics, cutting-edge technology, overlapping conspiracies, and a virtual Bugs Bunny collide.

High Point:

The chapters which depict Robert Gu’s awakening from years with Alzheimer’s disease engaged me, and represent something rarely tried in fiction. An entire novel (or, at least, a novella) could be based on Gu Awakening into this brave new world. I find the potential here fascinating….

Low Point:

…at least in part because one of the things the book otherwise lacks is compelling, developed characters. Perhaps Vinge could have made his point more effectively without the broader thriller plot.

Few people can match Vinge for his ability to imagine how technology does and could affect humanity, as it becomes not merely a part of our lives, but a part of ourselves. About these matters he often writes fluidly and effectively (whether you accept his predictions or not). However, his style becomes clunky with exposition in places, particularly when he depicts the high-level conspirators. It does not help readers new to Vinge that the novel begins with these characters.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. Vinge envisions a fantastic near-future filled with inventive technology, most of which seems plausible. He also weaves together a number of storylines. Underlying these we find a permutation of the standard thriller plot, with the solving of the complex plotting falling to a brave (if in this case, somewhat misguided) band of individuals. Vinge has visited this world before, in his Hugo-winning Fast Times at Fairmont High.

Imagery: 5/6 The battle over the library certainly ranks as one of the strangest scenes in recent SF.

Story: 4/6.

Characterization: 4/6. Robert Gu develops into an interesting character, and I could distinguish among the various incarnations of Zulfikar Sharif. The other characters never really develop.

Emotional Response: 4/6. The ideas and the depiction of ubiquitous technology fascinated me. For a book concerned with the human condition, however, I found humanity singularly lacking in much of this novel.

Editing: 5/6.

Overall score: 4/6 The chapter titles suggest young reader novels of an earlier era, sometimes with amusing results, such as “Bob Contemplates Nuclear Carpet-Bombing.”

In total, Rainbows End receives 30/42

It’s a good book, but I would have voted for Stross’s Glasshouse, had I been voting this year.