Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End (2006)

No apostrophe in the title, you note: I don't doubt this will be a Finnegans-Wake-y trip-up point for sloppy future bibliographers.

So, this is an exercise in near-future idea-popping, filled with cool notions as to how contemporary technologies are likely to get extrapolated over the coming decades: internetted contact lenses, augmented reality, belief circles and the like. The novel employs a Wellsian ‘Sleeper Wakes’ conceit (noted 20th-century poet, Bob Wu is cured of the Alzheimers that had had him in a coma and rejuvenated) which enables Vinge to give us an Estate Agent's tour (or, since this is a US title, a Realtor’s tour) of his future through Bob’s eyes. And it's often interesting, this tour; although not really enough in-and-of-itself to hold our attention. So, alright: Vinge also provides us with a thriller strand: a dastardly plot to exploit ubiquitous Digital Age connectivity and der!-der!-DERR! Control! People’s! Minds!—which our hero tackles, helped by his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri and a would-be industrial spy/hacker/dude who only appears in the novel in the form of a white rabbit avatar. All fair enough. Although hip 21st-C youngsters are plugged into unimaginable reservoirs of info data, they don’t read books, and this is a Bad Thing. I can't argue with that. But, then, I'm 45. Indeed, whilst the novel does have a strenuously forward-looking ethos it can’t quite free itself of a certain Dad Dancing At The School Disco ("Vernor Vinge, b. 1944") quality. Vinge dedicates the novel to eBay, for instance, which is a bit wincing. At one point Bob loses his rag because Miri refers to Ezra Pound as ‘she’ (there’s a John Boyd novel—is it Last Starship From Earth?—which has a similar moment of outrage at somebody's gender-ignorance re: Rainer Maria Rilke). And whilst lots and lots of cool ideas and moments are, I suppose, a good thing in a novel, the tech stuff is frequently a little over-busy, and the thriller plot never quite picks up momentum to compensate for that, which makes the overall reading a bit of a plod. For example, often the prose is cluttered, ashen corporatese of this stripe:
Even on a slow day, thousands of certificates got revoked every hour. It was a messy process, but a necessary consequence of frauds detected, court orders executed and credit denied. All but a handful of revocations were short cascades of denied transactions, involving a single individual and his/her immediate certificate authority, or a small company and its CA. ... no apex certificate authority had ever issued global revocations. And Credit Suisse was one of the ten largest CAs in the world. Most of its business was in Europe, but its certificates bound webs of unmeasured complexity all over the planet, affecting the interactions of people who might speak no European language.
Too much of this (and there is too much of this: that passage continues ‘... failures spread as timeouts on certificates from intermediate CAs and—where time-critical trust was involved—as direct notifications ... so far there were only small failures as UCSD ...’) glues-up the machinery of the novel. Much better are the character dynamics, grouchy and real-feeling, with a solid sense of (especially) the emotional complexities of schoolyard interaction. Not the best novel published in 2006 (though the Hugo voters thought it was), but not bad.

I'm interested as to where we are now, with this novel (by 'we' I mean 'science fiction fandom'). 5 years is a long time in politics SF. Is this novel acclaimed as a modern classic? Is it still in circulation, being discussed and cited, reprinted and sold and so on? Or has it faded a little, such that now it looks like minor Vinge compared to the splendours of Fire Upon The Deep and Deepness On In The Sky? (Of course, the fact that I'm blogging it now might suggest the former state of affairs obtains).


Martin said...

Is this novel acclaimed as a modern classic?

No. I have no evidence for this beyond the fact I never hear anyone talk about it in my little corner of the world (and this is the first review of it I've read). To be honest, I rarely here people talking about Vinge at all - the last time was an embarassing reference in Rojert Sawyer's Wake - but if they to it is with respect to aFutD/DitS. He has another sequel/prequel/thingy in that series out this year though so it will be interesting to see how that is received.

As with everything, I imagine this is all different in America.

Peter Hollo said...

I found it a reasonably enjoyable read, but as well as everything you mention there's the great galumphing elephant of absolutely no sign of climate change which rather tarnished it. Presumably climate change doesn't fit with Vinge's libertarian worldview.

Also Peoples'! -> People's! please.

Adam Roberts said...

Peter. Oh, if you insist.

Martin: 'DitS', not 'DotS', quite right.

I'm sure you're right about America.

Pete Hindle said...

I have a copy on my shelf, and I do intend to get around to reading it sometime soon (although I've been saying that for a while though).

Is it a modern classic? No, probably not. It's good, and I think I can forgive the absence of climate change seeing as it is focused on different areas. You can't squeeze everything into a book, surely.

But it's near-futurism of connectivity is something that was groundbreaking, and AFAIK only Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story got anywhere near the same territory - written on the other side of Facebook's social media dominance.

Gareth Rees said...

The thing that struck me about Rainbows End was its exploration of the ways that technology substitutes for knowledge and skill as well as for physical labour. It's not just a kids-these-days-don't-read-books moan: Vinge imagines a world in which subject skill/expertise is not particularly valuable, being cheap and on tap via the net. What's valuable is the skill of being able to use the expertise of others. It seems quite plausible to me.

There are a couple of things I didn’t believe, though I can see why Vinge put them there. While I can believe that fear-driven legislation might force a lot of people to adopt something like the Secure Hardware Environment described in the books, the costs are considerable: not just the computational and energy costs of doing all that cryptography, but the very big risks that come when other people can revoke your ability to run your own computer programs on your own hardware. Surely there would be proportionate pushback, especially after the first big revocation disaster. What happens when everyone’s car navigation software stops running at the same time? When airplane autopilots stop working at the same time as air traffic control goes down? When buildings fall over because their active balancing software has been revoked?

The second thing I don’t believe is that the non-technosavvy will be shut out from the economy quite as thoroughly as Vinge implies in the novel. Our experience is that technological advance doesn’t lead to the total obsolescence of older skills, but rather to a mixed economy in which there are both lettuce pickers and Internet search engine optimization consultants. If one kind of manual labour becomes wholly obsoleted by automation, those labourers become available for other kinds of activity.

The plot of the book was forgettable and indeed I have forgotten it completely, apart from thinking that it seemed rather unfair to raise the likelihood that Rabbit was an AI but then leave the question dangling.

Matt Hilliard said...

I'm an American who enjoys Vinge's work, and I liked Rainbows End, but I haven't reread it since it came out and it's low enough on the mental list that I might never do so. So I'm not ready to call it a classic.

However I do think it had some important, maybe even ground-breaking material. Not the augmented reality stuff (although certainly Vinge being a computer science professor puts him way ahead of the William Gibsons of the world in understanding this stuff, if not always in writing it) but the exploration of computer illiteracy in a computer-dominated world. This isn't a subject most SF writers and fans consider very often, for obvious reasons, and I'd like that change. Doesn't look like Rainbows End is proving influential in that regard.

Gareth: Alas, not everyone can pick lettuce. Particularly older people, who are in any case the majority of computer illiterate people in the developed world. I know several people whose health is not good enough to do manual labor any longer, but not only do they not know anything about computers, they have an active aversion to them. A phobia, I guess.

From their perspective, in the last fifteen years the world has become a dystopia where not only are they rendered unemployable, they have to interact with confusing computers at previously comprehensible venues like the airport, voting booth, and even the grocery store. "Why can't I just talk to a human?" they complain, much the way I (stereotypical SF fan that I am) sometimes wish I could just deal with a computer in a transaction instead of having to call up a real person.

Obviously many--most?--older people aren't like this, and I have no idea how widespread it is. But it's a real problem for real people.

David Duffy said...

I think of it as modern classic hard SF, of the lineage that includes The Space Merchants, Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider, Islands in the Net, Distraction, KSR's Mars Trilogy and The Gold Coast, maybe Rucker's Software (the rest of that series goes somewhere else). That is, a dense imagining of genuinely plausible near(ish) future technologies and the social world that they lead to. There are not really many novels of that type published in any decade, they can date, and the thriller plot elements may be less important in our overall assessment than the world building.

After saying that, the idea that mass murder or mass brainwashing will become easier and easier for more and more individual actors is taken seriously (well maybe not brainwashing ;)).
"Your parents were in the army, weren't they? They must know all about mind control."

Robert's trajectory through the Two Cultures from a nasty aesthete into a worthwhile minor techie is perhaps only one a SF fan would approve of ;). Aside from that, the world shown might be a satire on Silicon Valley and UCSD, but
it feels a bit too solid. That is possibly a characteristic of SF satires that they might exaggerate the present but also be a plausible future outcome.

WRT Peter Hollos on climate change, the story is set sufficiently close to now that effects of such will not be large: we have no insight into water and power, except that the latter must be cheap (all those electric cars presumably with some kind of supercapacitor in them), and I guess the former is therefore solved by desalination in SoCal.

WRT Secure Hardware. I believe the infrastructure (Trusted Computing etc) for that type of control is creeping back into the next generation of Intel chips, isn't it? The US Army has mandated it since 2005 for their hardware, just when RE was written.

So is it great? It's pretty good, and I have reread it to think about some of the ideas he puts forward, because he seems to have thought about them, and I don't think has published them elsewhere as essays. Are the characters real? They're handled pretty well, and there are a lot of them, as in, say, _SoZ_. Is he a great stylist? Not particularly, but not particularly clunky either.

Will it still be readable in twenty or fifty years, as The Space Merchants? I predict not, but then again, I don't know if many of the current generation have read Pohl and Kornbluth, or regard _TSM_ as a classic. I wonder if Richard Powers thinks _SoZ_ is a classic?