Review of Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Meh. This novel has virtues and flaws that are typical of Vinge.

Chief among the flaws is that there are too many characters. They’re hard to keep track of. Also, Vinge indulges in a fascination with technology to the extent that the plot is overshadowed. Yes, this is a standard hazard with science fiction, but for precisely that reason a professional SF writer should be on guard for it. These first two problems create a third: the pacing suffers.

The virtues I’ll get to later, but other things first.

The setting. In the future, everything is wired. You can see in the dark because the world is littered with cameras that are beaming out IR and UV and routing what they see to your wearable computer, which routes the info to your computerized contact lenses. You can see through walls in the same way. You can walk heedlessly into traffic on a busy superhighway with no danger, because every car is computer-controlled, and they, with superhuman speed, alter their paths around you. You can dance in realtime with people on the other side of the planet. Etc.

This is all very cool… if one doesn’t think about the Orwellian aspects: the government knows everything you’re doing all the time. Indeed, it’s illegal to have any IT that lacks a Department of Homeland Security monitoring/ controlling chip.

Biotech and nanotech are also very advanced, which takes us to…

The plot. As the book opens, someone – no one knows who – has invented biotechnology that lets them manipulate other people’s beliefs and behavior, as in, “We’ll rearrange their neural structures to make them believe anything we tell them.” That ain’t good.

A union of intelligence agencies in Europe and Asia traces this tech to a lab at the University of California’s San Diego campus. They want to infiltrate the lab to learn who developed this tech and, more importantly, destroy it. However, to avoid conflict – this is espionage by foreign powers on US soil – they plan to work through a cutout.

The cutout is Rabbit, a virtual presence who takes the form of, well, guess. They don’t know who Rabbit really is; they don’t even know if it’s a person, a business organization, a government actor, a consortium of several such entities, or what. All they know is that “he” has a good record of past computer thefts, pranks, etc., and he’s never been caught.

Rabbit doesn’t really know what he’s helping them to acquire, and two of the three intelligence operatives don’t either – they’re all being manipulated by the third one. The third one, a director of a European intelligence operation, wants to acquire the new tech instead of destroy it.

There is a separate set of people who live near the U. Cal. San Diego campus who are manipulated into acting as the on-scene hands of the infiltration operation. This set of people is too large to conveniently describe. They all have different desires, and are promised different things by the espionage consortium, to elicit their cooperation. This is where Vinge’s lack of self-discipline with the number of characters really hurts. I’ll spare you.

After a lot of slow development that makes it a chore to read, everything comes to a head one night on the U. Cal. San Diego campus. The espionage group executes a raid on the biolab. The group has arranged for a riot to occur that night to distract campus security and cause general chaos to provide cover for the raid.

The riot takes the form of a clash between two groups of fiction fans contending (mostly non-violently) over the fate of the campus library. The library’s fate is uncertain because all its printed material is being transferred to digital formats; there is conflict over what to do with the ’brary after the transition is complete.

There is a cool scene during the riot, in which the active stabilization hydraulics that are used to earthquake-proof the library are taken over by some hacker. They use it to make the library get up and walk. This is absurd, obviously, but it’s a cool image. Here is a photo of the UCSD campus library, described accurately by Vinge, and yeah, it would be cool to see that thing striding around, looking like an alien explorer-bot freestylin’ around on Earth until the Mother Ship lands to take it back.

In the end the attempt to acquire the bad biotech is defeated and the tech is mostly destroyed. A little of it is preserved inside the brains of lab mice, some of whom escape into the wild during the riot, but as far as we know that never leads anywhere. (20 years later: “I feel compelled to provide cheese to random mice. Why am I doing this?”)

The novel does have some virtues, to wit:
1) A few cool scenes like the library walking.
2) The rioting fictional groups, Skootchies and Hacekians. They take their costumes from various works of fiction, mostly in the form of fanciful beasts, warriors, aliens, monsters, etc.
3) Rabbit is an amusing character, who perhaps should have been given more “screen time,” but… at the end we are still unaware of what it actually is! I think this is because the two most interesting possibilities, AI and ETs, have been used by Vinge before. In True Names, he first hinted that a mysterious hacker was an alien, before revealing that it was actually (human-created) AI. So there’s an interesting pair of possibilities, both of which Vinge had already used, and he didn’t want to repeat himself. So what does he do? He refuses to solve the riddle! Gah! Vinge!

In the end, essentially nothing in this fictional world has changed. People have some fun memories of creative rioting and a walking library, but otherwise everything is pretty much as it was before.

This defies one of the principal desiderata of the novel as a literary form: that a situation and/or a character change so that in the end, the world, or at least the protagonist’s personal world, is different. Even in the “save the world from blowing up” genre, it should not be that the only thing that happens is that the world is in peril but then is saved. The hero/heroine should have learned something, or achieved something personal, along the way. Or the world should be at a new equilibrium, as in, “Double-Oh-Seven, the world has now had three narrowly-averted disasters involving ketchup, guitar strings, and snowboards, and this last one was the worst of all. This has caused us to establish a multinational Ketchup, Guitar String, and Snowboard Task Force, such that this peril will never threaten the world again! We’re safe!” In other words, the planet is in a new, better situation compared to the start of the novel.

So at the end of Rainbows End, we’re right where we started. Yeah, we saw some cool implications of a thoroughly-wired world along the way, but… that’s not really enough.