Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Published: Tor, 2006
Awards Won: Hugo and Locus SF Awards
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial and Prometheus Awards
“Advances in medicine have rescued the elderly Robert Gu, world-class poet, from death’s door. While he’s admired by many, the people closest to him know him as an abusive and hateful SOB. While recovering, he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter Miri, a sunny young teen whom he’d never had the opportunity to wound. He has lost his place in the world, and his sense of how he relates to the people in it. It’s difficult for him to go back to poetry, so he begins the painful process of trying to learn a new generation of technology through adult remedial education.
One thing that particularly grates on Robert is the lack of physical books in this new age, since most information has been digitized into searchable information. When he learns from others of his generation that a new technology is going to digitize the library of his old university, destroying the books in the process, he falls into their clandestine scheme to throw a spanner in the works. Things are never simple in an interconnected world, though, and Robert has no way to know how far his actions will reach.” ~Allie
I’m finally coming in on reading the last few Hugo winners! I’m currently reading Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, and then my only remaining unread winner is Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’ve also read A Shadow Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge years ago, and as far as I can recall, I enjoyed it quite a lot.
Rainbows End imagines a fascinating future world filled with new technology. Connectivity has moved into articles of clothing, and young people can manipulate information and communication with gestures. I especially enjoyed how technology allowed you to play with perception. You can transform your surrounding into Middle Earth, but still keep the relevant cues so that you can interact normally in the shared physical reality. The novel also takes into account the downsides of a highly connected world. For instance, most work is now about synthesizing information, and non-searchable data structures (like physical books) are neglected. When most people are interacting through digital avatars, a more literal form of identity theft is also a problem. Despite the downsides, it’s a very cool world, and one that I was happy to explore.
On the other hand, I was not particularly interested in the abusive jerk of a protagonist, Robert Gu. I’m also not exactly sure why his body was miraculously cured to youth, because it was irrelevant to the story. Anyway, he has a deeply unpleasant personality, and I sympathized with his family’s dislike of him. Robert does have a small character arc throughout the book, where he becomes gradually slightly less of an abusive jerk. This might be a realistic depiction of the extent to which people can actually change, but in fiction it can feel a little unsatisfying. Aside from Robert, though, there were some sympathetic side characters. His cheerful and intelligent granddaughter Miri was a favorite of mine, as well as his earnest and struggling remedial classmate Juan. Some of the other elderly also have interesting takes on how to re-integrate into the current society. For me, there were interesting and likeable characters here, they just weren’t Robert Gu.
Regarding the plot, I think I could best describe it as fitting in the slice-of-life genre. I’ve seen the novel described as a thriller, but I feel that’s a little misleading. There is a global conspiracy that may be a threat to the human race, but it’s heavily backgrounded. The main story is about Robert’s daily life, his work with the remedial education class, and his relationships with his family. Robert’s big conspiracy is just a plot with his old frenemies to mildly inconvenience the book digitizing/shredding operation. The implementation of this plot leads to the most action-packed part of the book (which includes a really neat technological riot), but there’s not much narrative payoff from all the chaos. I enjoyed the page-by-page of seeing life in this interesting future, though, so ultimately I’m happy to have read it.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Rainbows End is a slice-of-life story featuring a jerk protagonist in an interesting future world. I enjoyed exploring how ubiquitous connectivity affected people’s lives, as well as seeing the clever things that can be accomplished with augmented reality. The main character, an abusive old man named Robert Gu, has a slight redemption character arc, but it was never enough to really make him likeable for me. I preferred reading about some of the side characters, such as his granddaughter and his classmates. There is a big, worldwide conspiracy involved here, but it’s the little, local conspiracies that are the focus of the novel. This is not my favorite Vinge novel, but I did enjoy exploring its hypothetical future.