Novel * Vernor Vinge * The Augmented Reality Future * 2006
First of all, allow me to reiterate my jealous annoyance with polymath genius sons of bitches like Vernor Vinge. He’s a mathematician and computer scientist who also happens to have like five Hugo awards because all his books are really good. At least he looks pretty much exactly what you would think a computer scientist who writes sci-fi would look. Okay, now that my petulant complaining is out of the way, let’s take a look at Rainbows End and its obnoxious lack of a goddamned apostrophe. It’s killing me. And no, that’s not petulant complaining, that’s pedantic complaining. There is a subtle art to whining on the internet, you know. Anyway, before Rainbows End I have read two of this other novels, both of which were excellent, and so I had high hopes. While I was not entirely let down, this novel didn’t click with me as much as A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, both of which are stone cold classics. The fact I haven’t written about them yet is a crime. Rainbows End is vastly unlike those two books, however, in that it’s a near-future story told on Earth.
Rainbows End is a book about what the world of the early 21st century would look like if the trends of 2006 held pace. Some of the things Vinge writes about here are still being developed. He correctly identified that the blistering technological pace of the 20th century has shifted almost entirely to computing power and related fields and away from the industrial and mechanical that was rampant a hundred years ago. The San Diego of Rainbows End, then, is set up for a population heavily reliant on augmented reality. What is that? Well, in context of the novel and current technology, it is a computer system that allows the user to overlay their own personal system onto the world around them. Essentially, the computer allows the user to project visuals and other information systems onto reality as they move through it. Say if you’re at the park and it’s just a boring old park. If you have the system and the cash, you can flip on your AR and now that park is filled with dinosaurs or gorillas or the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The use of such a powerful interface could, if integrated into a city’s infrastructure, change how society functions.
This is a novel about those societal changes, and how the citizens of that society have adapted to accept those changes and integrate them in their lives. Or not, as the case may be. Rainbows End has a few other things going on, one of which is fairly apocalyptic in nature. The main tension of the story is The Villain Who Thinks He’s The Good Guy and his endeavor to implement what is essentially mind control to placate humanity into being peaceful. Somehow, the novel manages to make this situation seem less important than an old man’s relationship with his granddaughter. This old man, Robert Wu, is a huge douchebag. He’s also the protagonist, so it’s one of those novels where you’re waiting around for a redemptive moment. Robert Wu is a poet (ugh, I know) who thinks extremely highly of himself, to the point where he considers everyone else to beneath him. This includes his ridiculously talented and high-achieving family. Rainbows End begins with Robert recovering from Alzheimer’s, which is curable in this future, only to find out he can’t do poetry anymore. Oh the tragedy. He then attends remedial school to catch up on the new technology, and despite the whole mind-control-apocalypse, most of the novel seems to take place in these classes.
I had a strange experience with this book, as you might have surmised from the tone so far, and I’m still trying to decide whether or not I liked it. I’m pretty sure I did, but I think I liked it for reasons other than those intended by the author. The only characters I really liked were not entirely vital to the plot and at not as fleshed out as I might have expected by the author of A Fire Upon the Deep. Specifically, Juan Orozco got hosed. As a character, he was simply strangely drawn. He’s described, over and over and over, by pretty much every other character in the book, as a dumbass loser who can’t do anything right. This is extremely harsh, especially considering he’s still a child, but also because he works hard and has an active create mind. The things he says combined with his actions do not jive with the perspective the other characters have of him, and these things are never really reconciled. There’s no redemptive moment for Juan, not that he needs one, and it’s clear by the end that everyone else will continue to view him as some kind of endearing goober. Which is pretty unfair, especially since when shit goes down he’s given no real role in the climactic events of the story.
Now that I think about how the book ends, I think I understand the disconnect between the events unfolding in the story and the tone of the language used to describe it all. That is to say, very little dramatic weight is given to the potential apocalypse at hand. Well, that’s not entirely fair, that big AR fantasy battle was pretty cool, especially when contrasted with the descriptions of the real military hardware employed by the Marines. Still, the novel makes as big a deal of Robert Wu being mean to his granddaughter as it does high-level breaches of security and the potential brainwashing of humanity. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and if it’s an intentional attempt to get me more vested in the internal life of Robert Wu, it failed. Because fuck that guy for real.
At its heart, Rainbows End is a novel of ideas as opposed to a novel of characters and storytelling, and that’s totally fine. That’s why I think that in the end, I still enjoyed it. The novel presents a plausible future, which is always fascinating, especially considering that we’re a little over halfway to when the novel is set. This particular story is focused on accomplished older people trying to re-establish themselves in a society which has begun to pass them by, which is fine. That the technology itself is the cornerstone of this new way of life is where the ideas start kicking around. It’s made pretty clear that true power is held by those who best understand information control, and that the high-achieving Wu’s are powerful because they are able to harness this understanding. Likewise, intelligence agencies are depicted of having a disproportionate amount of power since they deal entirely in information, and are only threatened when an A.I. gathers enough consciousness to infiltrate their systems. Did I mention that there’s an artificial intelligence with its own agenda? You’d think something like that would swing a little more dramatic weight, but that’s kind of how Rainbows End rolls. It’s an odd book I’m pretty sure I liked.