SF Novel by Vernor Vinge
Tor May 2006
In the year 2025, Alfred Vaz, a powerful man running one of the world’s top Intelligence Agencies, sees it as his job to protect the world. As new technologies develop, Vaz envisions a time when anyone having a “bad hair day” can obtain the means to destroy entire countries. He launches a daring scheme, contracting the services of the mysterious Rabbit, an entity specializing in networking resources and managing complex projects. Vaz thinks that Rabbit is a pushover, but he soon learns that he has vastly underestimated it. In fact, might it be that Rabbit isn’t a human at all, but an AI with a highly evolved consciousness?
Meanwhile, in San Diego, Robert Gu has been given a second life. After escaping near death with advanced Alzheimer’s, Robert is cured with the latest medical advancements. It turns out that Robert also qualifies for a rare treatment that rejuvenates the body, literally making him young all over again. But Robert finds that he’s been left behind in this strange, new world. At the local school he attends classes designed for those unable to maintain the fast pace of cutthroat culture. Having once been a prominent professor and famous poet, though, Robert has little patience to learn the complicated ins-and-outs of a society constantly living online. So, when the Mysterious Stranger offers him a chance to regain his old gifts, Robert finds himself selling not only his soul, but possibly the family who took him in. Little does Robert know that the Mysterious Stranger is connected with the plans of a certain Alfred Vaz, and that his actions will impact the course of civilization.
Rainbows End is a thought provoking tale with a fast pace and expansively detailed vision of the future. Vernor Vinge is at the height of his skills, expertly creating new technologies and seamlessly weaving them into the text. The task of writing Rainbows End must have been painstaking, for the reader could easily become overwhelmed by all the virtual magic and strange environments. Luckily, Vinge focuses on the characters and develops the world around them, rarely putting science directly in the spotlight.
For most of the book, Robert Gu serves as our guide. We see the future through the eyes of a man who thinks and moves like one of us. He is the reader’s touchstone, the common ground which gives the reader a framework to understand the future. And a strange future it is that Vinge depicts. Most people, especially the younger generations, live in a constant state of virtual connectivity. They call it “wearing” because their very clothes and contact lenses keep them online 24 hours a day. Information is literally at their fingertips, and in the world of virtual reality almost anything is possible. It is a society where technology is becoming so advanced that the human equation may soon become irrelevant. The character of Rabbit is a constant reminder of that theme. While Vinge never explicitly states Rabbit is an AI, the concept is heavily hinted at, letting us think that AI’s can exist in this world and can easily out-think us.
Vinge does not end Rainbows End on this dour note, though. Hope is present throughout as Robert learns how to fit in as a man from another time. We see that humans still have a place, and that people can still learn new skills that make them invaluable to society. Rainbows End is a powerful story filled with warning and possibility, not doom. How will humanity exist in a world where technology out-evolves us? It’s not too late to figure that out.