Tor, 2006, 381 pages
Set a few decades from now, Rainbows End is an epic adventure that encapsulates in a single extended family the challenges of the technological advances of the first quarter of the 21st century. The information revolution of the past 30 years blossoms into a web of conspiracies that could destroy Western civilization. At the center of the action is Robert Gu, a former Alzheimer's victim who has regained his mental and physical health through radical new therapies, and his family. His son and daughter-in-law are both in the military, but not a military we would recognize, while his middle-school-age granddaughter is involved in perhaps the most dangerous game of all, with people and forces more powerful than she or her parents can imagine.
Rainbows End is not cyberpunk, but "post-cyberpunk." It takes place in a world that looks a lot like ours, if you extrapolate the technology a little further along the curve. Everyone has virtually constant wireless connectivity with bandwidth and processing power that would make today's NSA cry. You can carry petabytes in your pocket. People collaborate, meet, and game around the world as easily as across the room. You can apply your favorite "theme" to the real world whether you're at home or taking a hike in a park.
Although in many respects, it's an optimistic future, basically positing that we keep going pretty much as we have been, the threats are also escalating. Terrorists and nation-states alike have already nuked a few cities, unleashed a few plagues, and come up with many other ways in which humanity can end itself, and the soldiers standing watch to prevent it have almost no margin for error.
Into this world comes the plot in the form of a Rip Van Winkle poet laureate who's just been brought out of years of dementia by new medical treatments. He's now a functioning human being again, and with a youthened body as well, but he's lost the poetry that made him a genius. Also, he is stuck living with his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter, and his son hates him because before he slipped into dementia, he was a sadistic, verbally-abusive tyrant.
Despite being a nasty old SOB, his thirteen-year-old granddaughter inexplicably likes him and wants to help him navigate this hyper-wired world. Robert Gu is not grateful.
Miri's parents, it turns out, have very important jobs stopping terrorists, nuclear attacks, and the like. Which is how Robert gets an offer from a mysterious online stranger who claims he can help him restore all of his mental faculties, including his poetic gifts.
Now come on, Robert, even in the 20th century you knew to be wary of strangers on the Internet.
A techno-thriller about trans-national conspiracies with heavily futuristic, intelligent worldbuilding, this is hard science fiction full of big ideas, and very enjoyable for any true SF fan. Vinge keeps the plot moving, juggling about a dozen different characters all with their own motives and hook into the multi-layered plot. Very few of them know what's really going on or what everyone else is up to.
One of the best parts included the battle of "Belief Circles" over a library, between followers of a Discworld-like fictional universe and the juvenile devotees of a Pokemon-like world.
On the other hand, even though Robert Gu gets to be a hero in the end (and somewhat redeems himself) he never really becomes someone you root for. And Miri and her friend Juan were just a bit too cliched as the tech-savy precocious tweens who are gonna school their elders in all this new-fangled technology. Vinge writes complex adults reasonably well; I noticed in this book as in his previous ones that he doesn't really seem to get children.
Also, the bit about digitizing books seemed like pandering to the "Ebooks are eeeeevil!" crowd. I thought the idea of tossing books into a giant paper shredder that instantly digitizes perfect, permanent reproductions was pretty cool. In one afternoon, you have an entire library available online.
But those nits aside, this is high quality science fiction.
Have you read Rainbows End?
Have you read any other books by Vernor Vinge?
Verdict: Although I did not love this book as much as his Zones of Thought space operas, Vernor Vinge has yet to disappoint me. Rainbows End is a hard SF novel that appeals to the futurist, yay-Singularity! crowd. The story may be more interesting than the characters, but I still rank Vinge as one of the best of current SF authors.
Also by Vernor Vinge: My reviews of A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, and The Children of the Sky.
My complete list of book reviews.