Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Whenever people talk about The Singularity, one reaction I always feel in my gut is, “Okay, describe it.” Of course, by its very definition, the Singularity is [relatively] indescribable, since it’s what is as incomprehensible to our minds as our world is to the mind of a goldfish. In this way, The Singularity is, I suspect, simply a piece of SFnal dogma, or perhaps, holy doctrine is a better word for what it is. We can’t show you it, but we can hint at it, point at it, hope you get it. The Singularity is what makes things go way beyond our ken.

How fitting that Rainbows End should have been written by Vernor Vinge, the man with whom the notion of the Singularity is most associated, in part due to his writing on the subject. (Though Ray Kurzweil’s trying hard to become Singularity man, Vinge’s still the one with that mantle for those in the know.)  This book doesn’t describe the Singularity either, because the world in which the characters find themselves is, in fact, still comprehensible, and still possible to handle… with a little effort.

Or with a lot of effort. Take Robert Gu, the onetime poet laureate and total bastard who, having received life-extension treatments that have given him back what is (mostly) a (relatively) young man’s body, but also undone the effects of his particular case of Alzheimer’s Syndrome. And all it cost him is his poetical abilities!

Er.

The notion of life-extension is like a jazz standard in SF now — when someone takes up the tune, you wonder which riffs they’ll accentuate, which ones they’ll imply, which ones they’ll obliterate, and whether they’ll come up with anything new to do with the subject. But all too many stories make life extension very easy; it’s just a case of copying someone’s mind from their original body into something more eternal, into a computer, or whatever. Don’t get me wrong: stories that use these approaches are sometimes fascinating too, but it usually doesn’t sate my realism tooth. The one novel I’d read before Rainbows End that had at least a tinge of realism in this area was Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, where different technologies compete for funding and support; where life-extension research is a kind of minefield of economic support and failure, and where research is carried out on those who volunteer for their chance at a second try at youth.

Vinge’s world in Rainbows End, though, thickens that curry with the idea that life-extension technology isn’t a cureall, but rather a “blessed minefield” of advances in this or that technology or technique for treating this or that condition, which only work on some people. Aging, like living, involves all kinds of random factors. Your Alzheimer’s might not be curable. Your “arthritis” might be caused by something different from mine. Who knows whose will be cured more easily, or at all?

The first of the two plotlines in Rainbows End is about a man who got lucky… sort of. Sort of, because Robert Gu, the man who lost his poetical abilities but was given another youth, finds himself dealing with all kinds of fallout, not only from his life — how badly he treated people back when he was a major voice in moden poetry — but also with all the changes in the world that he just ignored in his old life, and managed to ignore until he slipped into senility. Gu is not so lucky this time: he has to atone for what he’s done — and for things he has yet to do — and he has to find a way to cope with the world he finds himself in.

And what a world it is. The “human era” isn’t quite over, but “human” is changing, even then, and the dizziness that Gu feels confronted with it is a foretaste of what a plain old human (like you or me) would feel staring into the beginnings of a soft-takeoff Singularity. Just as anyone who’s been thinking about it has said, computers change everything. In Vinge’s world, computers are worn by all but the most out-of-it oldsters or luddites, and the interface is with the brain. People walk around slipping into whatever consensual landscapes they like: games, shared-world literary scenarios, pornscapes, you name it. People interact by private messaging, and by some mysterious process that’s never quite explored, people can even merge personalities to some degree — forming composites, or hijacking an individual — by sharing access to one individual’s wearable computer (or hacking into an unsuspecting victim’s system). Telepresence is taken for granted, and utterly common — kids work on homework together virtually, and flash crowds gather for riots. Technology has changed — there’s no fixing a car when everything under the hood is a black box — and people have changed, too, as exemplified in Miri Gu, Robert Gu’s granddaughter who is working to help her grandfather cope with life in this changed world (and to understand him).

Not only that, but learning has changed. Robert Gu ends up having to go to high school again just to get a handle on things. Of course, this has been done before in a few very bad movies (one of them Korean) but Vinge pulls it off by mixing Gu’s classmates liberally — not just the younger, smarter kids, but also a number of older returnees who are struggling, more or less than Gu himself, to catch up to a world that has left them behind. Even the UCSD campus has changed — not that this should surprise us — and Vinge has great fun imaginging what could become of the university where he worked for so long. There’s a great thread about the worldwide destruction of libraries being carried out in order to force books into the “public domain” — the physical copies being gone, the electronic versions can be made available to anyone, and the thread is given local life in several interesting groups who are opposed to it.

Then there’s the other plotline, which is that the world is, because of all this technology, spinning out of control. Weapons of Mass Destruction are no longer someone one fears a foreign country to have, but rather, are the province of any smart guy having a bad day. This means security is a big deal, and a good number of characters are involved — including a group of high-level spooks, Miri’s parents, and, most mysteriously, a mysterious white rabbit whose nature is never made quite completely clear, though I know what I’d wager “he” is. (Though word online is that Vinge will eventually get around to exploring that more, he’s working on something about the Tines, from the “Zones of Thought” universe, at the moment. Something set sometime after A Fire Upon the Deep, he said in Seattle, which is great, since that was the first thing of Vinge’s that I read, and still my favorite so far.)

For the other plotline is really about laboratories, and who controls them; it’s about whether freedom is worth the risk of destruction, and how that risk and our demand for freedom could get reconciled not through machines, but by administration, bureaucracy, and intelligent use of machines. What looks like a desperate fight over one thing is actually a desperate fight over something else, and this is where the two storylines merge, on the most terrifying technology of all: YGBM. You Gotta Believe Me.

There are, as some of my friends said before I read the book, a few off-notes. For example, the “Scooch-a-mouti” belief circle struck me as a little too… I don’t know. Pokémon? I had trouble buying that adults (even young adults, or, hell, even teens by the era of Miri Gu) would actually get into Scooch-a-mout, unlike the shared, franchised fantasy world of [imaginary] Pratchett-knock-off author Jerzy Hacek. I just couldn’t see anyone over the age of ten getting into Scootch-a-mouts for some reason. Likewise, some of the future-slang didn’t quite work for me. And there were things which, being a fan of Ezra Pound myself, and very into poetry, didn’t quite sit right for me about Gu’s ideas on poetry. But these were, really, off-notes in a very good performance, and as such, just as at the symphony concert I was at last week, it was easy for me to overlook them for the sake of the greater work.

It was fun, and fascinating, and the only reason it took me so long to read was that when I began it, a ton of projects landed in my lap, and piled up until I had to just read snatches of it as I went along. Would that I had read it before I met Vinge in Seattle — where he autographed my copy, during the week he was my teacher at Clarion West. And I should add that he was my teacher, as a disclosure. I know the man, and like and admire him very much. But that’s not why I liked the book. I liked it because it was enough of a mix of future-shocked technothriller and pleasingly prickly family drama, with the fate of the world hinging on how the Gu family holds things together. And there’s homework, too.

Naw, that doesn’t say it. Hey, if you would really like to know why I liked it, you need to read it. And lucky for you, it’s still available online, for free. (I read mine in my ebook reader, leaving the inscribed hardback on the shelf at home.) Then go vote with your dollars and buy yourself a copy.

Next up for review: the important bit of technoculture reportage The Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling (a retrospective on why this book is still important, but also a discussion of the experience of studying this book with the students in my Media English course); and then Naomi Wolf’s hopefully (I think so) less-important The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot.

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