Having recently enjoyed The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, I had high expectations for Rainbows End. Vinge is a master at crafting great science fiction stories, and I liked Fast Times at Fairmont High, a novella in Collected Stories that shares the primary setting and a main character with Rainbows End. Set in 2025 San Diego, Vinge explores the clash between old and new in multiple ways in Rainbows End.
The main character, Robert Gu, is an old man rejuvenated by medical breakthroughs that give him a youngster’s body. Unaccustomed to the myriad threats and possibilities technological advances offer, he attends Fairmont High to help him learn his way around the technology. It’s a sort of remedial school for oldsters and youngsters alike, with a sympathetic yet firm teacher—and maybe more—in Louise Chumlig. The explosive growth in computer capabilities drives two story lines: first, fears of “You Gotta Believe Me” (YGBM) mind-control software appear to be justified, as evidence suggests someone has started testing pieces of such a device; and some UCSD staff formulate a plan to thwart the destruction of the university’s library—as part of the digital archiving process, books are shredded. (Vinge’s mordant touch there is brilliant.) And of course, Homeland Security (and similar agencies in other countries) has expanded its reach dramatically, being embedded in every microchip and constantly paranoid about enemy attacks, both physical and cyber.
Plots and subplots interweave, and characters also interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Vinge’s portrayal of “belief circles” was at times amusing and interesting, but ultimately the combination of comedic and hard sf elements in Rainbows End didn’t work well for me. The various storylines created an overall tableau that was too busy; it also helped keep me from developing an interest in any of the major characters. Gu is a singularly unpleasant asshole, and despite some growth over the course of the action, he never completely redeems himself; thus I never really cared what happened to him. In fact, all the characters felt to varying degrees like caricatures—pieces Vinge pushed around the board in various ways to meet his needs. The only one that intrigued me was the deux ex machina-ish Rabbit; and he was barely limned over the course of Rainbows End.
Vinge’s foray into near-future cyberpunk fiction glimmers in spots with his skills, yet in others it falls flat. For all the security paranoia displayed, hijacking crucial individuals seemed casually easy. And while I am not a fan of the neat and tidy happy ending, the lack of closure for several plotlines left me disappointed. But my reasons for dissatisfaction with Rainbows End will not be relevant to other readers; they certainly haven’t put me off reading more from this imaginative author.