Monday, April 14, 2008

Review - Rainbows End

Rainbows End
by Vernor Vinge
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

That's not a typo, the novel's title is explicitly Rainbows End with no apostrophe.

For Vinge's third Hugo for best novel (putting him in spitting range of Heinlein and Bujold's record for four) he goes once more to one of his favorite subjects: information science. The book is about what happens when we can process vast amounts of information efficiently.

In the not too distant future a poet suffering from Alzheimer's is cured and has his body revitalized. He's lost his memory of the past twenty years as a result though and so has to be reeducated in the ways of the modern world where everyone is always connected to data. As he's recovering he discovers that libraries around the world are being destroyed for the sake of making perfect digital copies of all of the information and through that becomes embroiled in a terrorist plot.

Much like the other Vinge novels the description only covers the barest surface of what is occurring in Rainbows End but unlike A Deepness in the Sky I don't feel that Vinge ever loses track of what he's doing with his book. His storytelling is exceptional in this book as he juggles a dozen plot lines with a host of conflicting characters wonderfully.

The real star of the novel is the technology which makes me think of the book as a kind of info-punk novel (much in the same way that Stephenson's The Diamond Age is a nano-punk novel). Vinge spends a lot of time detailing how access to and being able to handle vast quantities of data will transform society. Medicine is customized to the individual's genetic code, schools teach how to find answers in the flood of information rather than the information itself, and architecture consists of unsteady thin boxes held up by systems balancing the building continually and the appearance governed by the selected viewpoint of the individual. And if that's not enough fandoms due to their tightly linked communities have become political forces; Pokémon fandom in particular is a major player.

Technology alone doesn't make a great novel. Vinge gives us a great cast playing off each other. The poet who acts as the viewpoint character was a particularly nasty person before he recovered from Alzheimer's and is having trouble reconnecting with his family and trouble with writing. He's regularly dealing with academics who were his rivals while learning the basic life skills in the information age. A student at the high school attempts to use him but has trouble bridging the exceptionally vast generation gap. His ex-wife is sympathetic but wants him to believe she is dead. And so on. The novel is packed to the rim with fascinating characters and Vinge manages to use them well.

The terrorist plot in theory is the guiding force behind the book but it seems downplayed and understated compared to the character development that is occurring. Since it is also a bit of an overdone plot I didn't mind that at all.

The only real misstep I think he makes is that he gets a bit heavy handed with his metaphors at certain points. In particular the shredding of all of the books to record them. Even in an age where data is vastly more important than physical it's a stretch to think that they would choose to destroy millions of dollars worth of property for the sake of recording it digitally. One copy of the data should be sufficient and there's easier and less destructive ways to get it, but Vinge is attempting to make a point about the values of the new society.

It's a minor thing in a great novel and the whole thing is a satisfying read. If Vinge wrote a sequel I would probably be interested in reading it but my feeling is that he wrote what was worth telling about his setting and anything else would be redundant. Rainbows End is a tight, well built book in a way that simply isn't done very often with world building novels these days.

As an interesting aside this is the first book to win two Hugo awards. Vinge won a Hugo for an early version of the first few chapters as "Fast Times at Fairmont High". It took him five years to finish up the book and the results were worth it.