Friday, July 24, 2009


I've just finished Vernor Vinge's latest novel, 'Rainbows End', and as I put it down I reflected on it with wonder and a hint of delight. Wonder because the man is a towering genius of imagination. A hint of delight because even a towering genius of imagination isn't beyond occasionally screwing up the narrative and limping home like a baseball player who's been shot in the kneecaps.

In 2006 world-renown poet Robert Gu succumbs to Alzheimer's disease, and drifts along in a dark fog of confused memories and vague interactions with the world with no sense of the passage of time. When he surfaces, thanks to a new Alzheimer's cure, he discovers that he's living in 2025 with his middle-aged son and a granddaughter he never knew he had. Gene therapies have returned his body to an almost teenaged state, and although his personality seems to have altered somewhat his mind is as sharp as it ever was.

He needs every bit of his intelligence, however, as technology has improved exponentially since he was a professor of literature. Computers as we know them no longer exist. Smart paper, which can become anything from a camera to a web browser, is obsolete and used only by the elderly. Anyone under the age of 40 has wi-fi clothing and HUD contact lenses, so that with the correct series of gestures, squints and twitches they can access any information and overlay it across reality. Staring at bottle of orange juice will cause its expiry date and calorie count to hover across your vision. Glance at a shrub by the side of the road and have its Latin name pop up before your eyes. And if you're bored with your neighbour's house, you can arrange for it to appear to you as a castle, or a tree, or a giant statue of Gene Roddenberry.

This is an intriguing idea, but Vinge has a talent for taking these technological concepts and pushing them in unexpected directions. He extrapolates today's Google-savvy teenagers into youths who are functionally illiterate but have vast vocabularies because they can call up a thesaurus literally without blinking, and who are thunderingly ignorant and yet can know anything as soon as it's asked of them. This generation can know every fact imaginable, but only in isolation - as one older character notes, they don't know any of the framework around those facts. They can instantly find any piece of data but not say why that piece of data is important.

Vinge is even subtle enough to throw in the occasional glaring error as one of his teenaged characters chats knowledgably on a topic: the equivalent of discussing the exact release dates of obscure Billie Holiday recordings while at the same time assuming, from the name, that she was a man. Facts accessible in isolation lack the framework to prove or disprove their truth, making obvious errors harder to pick up.

Of course there's more to the book than this. There's a plot about a fiendishly complicated government conspiracy to check the population with a mind-control virus... but it's difficult to follow and eventually fragments under the weight of its own convolution. The last couple of chapters read as if Vinge had lost interest in the story and his editor had quietly passed away. Even so, Vinge's novels are great more for their ideas rather than their narrative. The plot itself rests on the idea that globalisation and the Information Age drives down the prices not just of dishwashers and laptops but also of WMDs and viral labs. By 2025 anyone with internet access and a bad hair day can create a species-threatening weapon of mass destruction, and it becomes harder and harder each year to prevent this from happening.

If you haven't read any Vinge I'd wholeheartedly recommend him. He's not prolific but what little he does write is fascinating.


Blogger MC Etcher said...

Sounds interesting! I'll check it out!

2:39 AM  

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