Book Review: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Rainbows End

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by Kyt Dotson

It’s not often that library science and English literature make an appearance as thematic components of the science fiction novels that I read—but Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge happens to do just that. The book assesses an interesting look into a near-future that addresses augmented reality and a certain amount of hypertechnology that could literally be around the corner for much of our own world. The setting is perhaps a century ahead or so with a random artificial intelligence and a lot of wearable computing leading the way.

Point-in-fact, the main character, Robert Gu, happens to be an English professor recently rescued from a slow deterioration into Alzheimer’s dementia happens to find the very phrase “Rainbows End” unnerving. It’s both the title of the boom and the convalescence home that he lives at in the initial phase of his recovery and the lack of the apostrophe does play part of the joke. He surmises that either the name of the facility happens to be some same misunderstanding of English grammar or perhaps a cynical observation about rainbows—being that rainbows do indeed end.

Having been gone from the world for some time, he finds himself thrust back into a family situation with his son, his son’s daughter, and without his wife. Throughout the story he struggles with how, before his transformation into a near-vegetable by the degenerative brain disease, he happened to be a curmudgeonly bastard who mistreated his wife and now that she’s left him she doesn’t even want to hear form him. The fact that he’s something of a stuffy-old-man sets up a lot of the family drama; but his granddaughter does want a relationship with him and does so via proxy on many occasions.

The main plot revolves obliquely around the inexorable march of technology and what’s intended to do with a local library. Something that must be a sore subject for any newly recovered English professor: the dispossession of books in the digital age. Already in the modern area we are slowly beginning to eschew books for e-readers and there’s even vast projects like Google’s scan-everything project to get dead-tree books into digital form. The intended destination of the library’s books in the novel, however, appeal to a bit more ambitious bent.

The company who wants to digitize the entire library intends to suck them out, un-spine them, shred the pages, and then digitize them as they fly out in a finely sliced mess. If that doesn’t send shudders down the spine of every old-fashioned bibliophile, there’s no telling what should.

In a way, this event may or may not be central to what matters in Robert Gu’s world; but he quickly finds himself sucked into a conspiracy to stop it. Save the books.

In line with many of Vinge’s other books, the world-of-tomorrow also ensembles a cast of concepts about how human beings engage themselves in culture. One of those, which ties directly to augmented reality, happens to be Belief Circles. If you’ve read my review on Karl Schroeder’s book Lady of Mazes, that novel presents the logical evolution of this concept. In the novel, Belief Circles influence how certain augmented overlays of reality in particular areas display themselves—augmented reality may change an otherwise boring looking library space into a region filled with burning torches, chiseled stone walls, and marching warriors in suits.

In fact, I just described one of the two factions vying for control of the library post rumpere so-named The Library Militant—an interesting sort of hybrid of a mediaeval clerical library and militaristic knights—and they are pro-digitization and thus pro-shredding the books. The opposite faction happens to be a belief circle surrounding fans of the absurd-sounding Scoochis, which is a bizarre children’s series reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’s work—they, of course, are pro-real-books and anti-shredding.

A big part of the story seems to take place between the low-level character building of recounting Robert Gu’s reintegration into his family and the activity of a mysterious Mr. Rabbit (who appears to be a powerful AI.) Mr. Rabbit has his own agenda and desires greatly to make a dent in the direction the library heads as the prominent belief circle will of course have a lot of power to decide where social order in the region goes.

It’s hard to tell exactly why Mr. Rabbit cares, but it’s obvious he does.

The book could have spent a lot more time on the sociology of books, augmented reality, and the library conundrum and it would have been a more amazing story. However, without the drama and life-journey for Robert Gu from a stubborn, self-absorbed angry man, into someone who could accept his son and his granddaughter it wouldn’t have been a very human story. I felt a little disappointed that it didn’t spent a lot of time discussing how belief circles (and their instrumental effect on augmented reality) could really change the world we live in.

Perhaps we’ll see that from a later work by Vinge.

Still, I would love to recommend Rainbows End. Even for a bitter-old-man I liked Robert Gu—I liked Mr. Rabbit even more—and the world itself seemed extremely plausible. Augmented reality felt like it could be here-and-now and left me imagining what it might be like to walk into the local library and speak with one of the Library Militant or receive a lecture from a Scoochi.

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