Book Review – Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
The odd future described by this book is both depressing and hopeful. It is a world in which humans regularly retreat into virtual reality, often corresponding to their chosen ‘belief circles,’ as an interface to the real world and yet they remain curious, productive and creative. There are large ‘Big Brother’ governments but they are mostly benign. There is very little privacy and yet people seem to respect one another’s individuality. There is an ever looming threat that terrorists will use real weapons of mass destruction against civilians but people in general seem to honestly abhor violence. People group themselves into belief circles with complex mythos based on various things from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld to something that sounds much like Pokemon but these seem to be viewed more as matters of taste than uncompromising religious “truths” so there remains room for compromise and agreement among their followers.
This juxtaposition of positive and negative extends to the characters. It is told from multiple points of view, primarily that of Robert Gu, once a renowned poet and a complete jerk in his personal life who is being successfully treated for several aging related illnesses including Alzheimer’s. Once he begins to regain his mind, he starts out as the SOB he used to be but he grows into far more empathetic person. The antagonist, Alfred Vaz, is attempting to develop something that sounds very much like mind control but he is doing so in an effort to protect people and create a more peaceful world and he is honestly upset when Gu’s granddaughter is endangered because of events that unfold ultimately from Gu’s efforts to stop him.
The book requires some work on the part of the reader. First of all the virtual reality aspect often makes it difficult to tell what is “real” and what isn’t. It also isn’t a simple good guy versus bad guy adventure tale. The characters are more complex than that and they grow and change through the course of the book. And there are a few loose threads left hanging, most notably who or what is “Rabbit?” But I hesitate to call these flaws. This ambiguity is part of the theme of this book and Vinge’s merging of dystopian and utopian views of the future make this an interesting and thought provoking read.