Thursday, 22 September 2016
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
It took me an absurdly long time to track down this book, and then when the dust settled, I somehow found myself in possession of two mass market editions. (I bought one at the big library sale last year, but forgot I had done so, and then picked it up again at a used bookstore.) None of the libraries in town had it, even though it was a Hugo nominee not all that long ago.
Even then, it took me the better part of a year to actually sit the hell down and read Rainbows End. It languished in my purse for a while, only having a page or two read at a time when I found myself somewhere with a few minutes to spare and nothing else on hand.
This all makes it sound like I didn't like the book, but I actually did. It was largely that it was the only mass market book that fit in my purse that I had around for a long time, so it got relegated to back-up book mode through no fault of its own.
Then I finally sat down and started it again from the beginning, and I have to say that this is solid science fiction. The main character is fairly unlikeable, but it's done well and everyone else around him knows that he's an asshole and treats him as such. (Pay attention, Jonathan Franzen.)
Robert Guo was a poet and noted bastard, who took great pleasure in using his facility with words to flay the skin off people in their most vulnerable places. His wife and son came to hate him. Then he got Alzheimer's. He reemerges from that much later, the beneficiary of new treatments that reversed the Alzheimer's and also turned back the clock on his appearance.
For his recovery, Robert lives with his son, son's wife and daughter, Miri. He is told his wife died years ago. As he recovers, he finds that his facility with words is gone, although he still has flashes of his ability to eviscerate someone's self-confidence with a few well-placed words.
That story takes place against the backdrop of international espionage, particularly counterespionage aimed at preventing random terrorist attacks caused by the easy availability of dangerous substances. In particular, one expert happened upon a correlation that suggests someone was testing out a mind control virus at a soccer match.
The trail leads back to a biotech company quite near where Guo lives. There are also subplots about overlays of VR through smart clothes/contact lenses, and the retention of real books versus the digitization of information.
Vinge is ambitious in his scope, and at times that feels like some aspects get short shrift, but overall, the cadre of people who are either old or unable or unwilling to fully use the new tools that permeate their world is strong. Repairing the ravages of age means that suddenly many older people are having to retrain to deal with a world that has changed on fundamental levels - almost no one interacts with the world without mediation of one kind or another.
There are some interesting speculations here, on what that does to knowledge acquisition and retention - when you know you can look up anything at any time, why would anyone bother trying to retain anything, no matter how smart and capable of it they were?
The threat to the world frames the book, but although it plays out in a satisfactory way, the reader is kept largely apart from knowing what the larger picture is - we know attacks happen, security is tight, but that world mostly comes through in the shady background.