My last book before my big vacation is Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge.
Vinge has won a quartet of Hugo Awards, especially for the two Zones of Thought novels A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky. Here, like in some of his short fiction, Vinge turns to the near future, depicting a future less than twenty years from now.
The novel centers around the Gu family as they are the focal point of a byzantine and somewhat convoluted plot on the part of several characters and forces , especially the mysterious and powerful Mr. Rabbit, who seek to manipulate a forthcoming event at the University of California San Diego for their own ends, some of which might be very terrible indeed.
Robert Gu is our main viewpoint character, a man who has been successfully treated, more or less for Alzheimer’s, as well as given a virtual fountain of youth. This allows us to see the world from the eyes of a character who is as unfamiliar with this world as we are, and its a good choice on Vinge’s part. The fact that the treatment has a side effect that propels Robert to action is just gravy. Besides Robert’s son and daughter in law, the other main character is the counterpoint to Robert, his talented and completely-familiar-with-the-world teenager Miri.
Showing us a High school of the future, lots of neat technology, hints of where the “War on Terror” really will go, and more, Rainbows End is crammed full of tasty bits. I especially liked the references both to Pratchett and a fictional author whose work is extremely popular in this world a couple of decades ahead. Too many novels set in the medium future assume that nothing new is going to be written worth reading. Here, Vinge creates a fictional fantasy author whose novels and premise sound so interesting (magically talented, militant librarians) that I wish the novels DID exist.
That, however, shows up a weakness in the book, besides the fact that the plot and plans of the various forces are byzantine and difficult to follow: The characters themselves are somewhat flat and not well developed. There isn’t too much character growth, except for Robert, and even that character arc is not that large, frankly.Other characters don’t show much if any growth at all, especially Robert’s ex-wife Lena, who covertly (and under the fiction that Robert has been told that she is dead) observes Robert’s attempted reintegration into society.
Still, the cool stuff is very cool and keeps the book humming. From belief circles (a sort of VR overview of reality which is built and maintained by those who enjoy that) to school projects far beyond the science fairs of today, there is plenty of tasty material. Vinge even manages to poke fun at his own novels in the text as well.
There are plenty of loose ends at the end of this book, which feels a little unfinished at the end for that reason. A sequel would not surprise me, and would be very welcome to continue to develop this possible future world.
While its not up to the stratospheric standards of his Zones of Thought novels, Rainbows End is a good novel all the same.