"You live in a time that thinks it can ignore the human condition."
Rainbows End took the 2007 Hugo Award-- Vernor Vinge's fifth-- for best novel. While it's arguably not Vinge's best work, it suggests directions for his writing that bode well for the readers of this extraordinary writer.
In the near future, people routinely keep themselves wired to cyberspace, often overlaying the real world with the one they'd prefer to see. Characters literally exist in a different reality than their neighbours. Instant messaging has evolved into virtual telepathy, and the potential to manipulate public events and private individuals has increased exponentially. It's a world Vinge visited previously in his short story, "Fast Times at Fairmont High." In this foray, media manipulation, library politics, cutting-edge technology, overlapping conspiracies, and a virtual Bugs Bunny collide.
At the center of a fairly complicated plot (in both senses) we find Robert Gu, a poet who, thanks to advanced medicine, returns to full consciousness after years with Alzheimer's disease. In this second life, he must adjust to changes in the world and regain knowledge he lost to his condition. He also tries to recapture the ineffable spark that once made him successful: a situation familiar to many artists.
The chapters which depict Robert Gu's awakening engaged me, and represent something seldom tried in fiction. I find the potential here fascinating. A man returning to life in a world of overlapping realities should be enough for any writer.
Vinge adds several other layers, however, a permutation of the standard thriller plot, unraveled by a brave (if somewhat misguided) band of individuals. It's a fascinating story. The climactic battle over a library ranks as one of the strangest scenes in recent SF, strange even by Vinge's standards. I found myself wondering, however, if Rainbows End couldn't have succeeded at least as well if it had remained a speculative novel of character. The various thematic concerns could have been addressed through Gu's everyday experiences.
In addition to Gu, the novel also features Zulfikar Sharif, another in SF's recent parade of characters who lead multiple lives of a kind familiar to a wired generation. He has been rendered believably. Astute readers should be able to distinguish among Sharif's various incarnations. Other characters have not been handled as well. For a book concerned with the human condition, I found humanity singularly lacking in the secondary players.
Few writers can match Vinge for his ability to imagine how technology does and could affect humanity, as it becomes not merely a part of our lives, but a part of ourselves. About these matters he writes fluidly and effectively. Most readers should enjoy Rainbows End whether they accept his predictions or not. His style becomes clunky with exposition in places, however, particularly when he depicts the novel's high-level conspirators.
Rainbows End, then, may not be Vinge's best novel, but he remains among the most consistently fascinating contemporary SF writers. Those who read their way through chapters such as "Bob Contemplates Nuclear Carpet-Bombing" and, of course, "The Missing Apostrophe" should find this novel a rewarding experience.
Title: Rainbows End
Author: Vernor Vinge
First published: 2006.
Rainbows End also has been made available online as a free download.