Thursday, August 9, 2007

Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End" (novel): Computer geek's utopia

Quote from the novel Rainbows End by Vernor VingeThe story begins on a promising note - biological trojans. But degenerates very quickly.

Nearly 75% of text is about a kind of technology utopia: wearable tiny computers that live in your cloths, contact lenses, etc. Ubiquitous cellphone like network connects them, but with much higher bandwidth & reliability. Display is primarily via contact lenses. Holographic displays indistinguishable from reality are the norm, as are haptic (can interact via your skin) I/O devices & dumb robots. All online identity management is via a few very big brokers using digital certificates. Government can snoop at your data at will via a mandated & heavily regulated Secure Hardware Environment that all computers & communications devices must conform to! This is the most boring part - page upon unending page of garbage.

Then there is the apparently main story - a cheap but fast moving espionage thriller. Story opens with it, but it really begins about midway through the book. Key to it is facetious, in my opinion:

  1. Infect a population with a harmless biological virus that makes them susceptible to suggestions.
  2. Now you can control their minds by sending suggestions via a TV program, email, etc!
The specific example cited was plausible enough - a virus that makes people crave a certain edible. But using it for generic mind control! Asimov at least doesn't try describing a specific technology when his characters manipulate others' emotions telepathically!

On top of that, the story is set in 2017. Author must be really optimistic!

Then there are various side tracks:
  1. Rehabilitation of old people.
  2. Digitization of libraries - a variant of Google's similar project but somewhat farcical - you digitize a library by shredding a book to little pieces - then feeding it to software that will read these pieces & correlate them! First destroy the correlation, & then try building it imperfectly from the destroyed pieces!
Story gets its name from an old age community. A character clarifies, & a chapter name too, that there is no apostrophe in the title.

This novel is available both in paper form for purchase, & free online.

Story summary.
For this story, I think it will be simpler to provide character summaries, & how they link up.

Utopia part begins about 5% through the story, is set in San Diego, & has the following main characters:
  1. Robert Gu, Sr: A very famous poet, now suffering from Alzheimer's disease at his son's home. One fine day, he is not only magically cured, but begins appearing much younger - thanks to newly discovered "Venn-Kurasawa" treatment. He has a nasty temper, hasn't quiet recovered his poetic talent & that knowledge depresses him. Part of the story deals with his rehabilitation. He is under constant threat from his son of being parceled off to an old age community.
  2. Lt Col Robert Gu, Jr: Sr's son & an officer in US Marines.
  3. Col Alice Gong Gu: Jr's wife, & an officer in some US intelligence agency.
  4. Miri Gu: Alice & Jr's 13 year old daughter. A girl with the golden heart. Has strong feelings for grand dad & keeps helping him in many ways.
  5. Lena Llewelyn Gu: Sr's estranged wife & Jr's mom. A competent psychiatrist, living in "Rainbows End" community with a room mate. After Sr's recovery, he is told she is dead; she doesn't want to meet him. Near end, he finds her existence, but there is no happy ending to their story.
  6. Xiu Xiang: 10 years Lena's senior & her room mate. She was a very competent engineer at Intel once. Is now old & undergoing rehabilitation.
  7. Juan Orozco: A young boy who becomes a friend of Sr & Miri, & plays a major role.
  8. Louise Chumlig aka Big Lizard: She helps in Sr's rehabilitation.
Epiphany is the software interface central to computers of this utopia, much like Windows is today on PCs.

Spy thriller has three main characters, all intelligence agents from Indo-European Alliance - one of the 3 big powers in the world, & includes Japan!
  1. Alfred Vaz: An Indian from Bombay, highly regarded in the intelligence community, & the main villain.
  2. Günberk Braun: A good intentioned German who detects the biological weapon, & unwittingly cooperates with Vaz for its investigation.
  3. Keiko Mitsuri: A Japanese woman cooperating with Vaz & Braun as a team.
Vaz uses characters from utopia story as pawns, via two link characters:
  1. Rabbit aka Mysterious Stranger: We never real find him, but all the evidence is that he is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) - kind of software agent that can roam the network. Problem is - he is far smarter than every other character in the story. Vaz enrolls him for some fun in the US, & he recruits local characters including Robert, Sr.
  2. Zulfikar Sharif: A literature Ph D student of University of California at San Diego. He will be interacting with Sr for his work. His Epiphany will be hacked by Rabbit & Miri for their own ends.
Fact sheet.
Rainbows End, novel, review
First published: 2006
Rating: B
Winner of Hugo Awards 2007 in novel category

Related: All Hugo Award stories.

See also.
  1. "Synthetic Serendipity": The short story that eventually became the "Rainbows End". Story doesn't have Gu family, or mind control conspiracy - only ubiquitous computing. Also see note on publisher's marketing story near end of "Synthetic Serendipity" article.
  2. "Fast Times at Fairmount High": According to a message dated 14 September 2007 from Justin Alexander on usenet (rec.arts.sf.written) (I am not able to locate the URL in Google Groups), this is another short story set in "Rainbows End" world. But I have not read it.
  3. Brian Stableford's "The Trial": I found it a better version of the small subplot in Rainbows where an Alzheimer's patient is dramatically cured. Probably because this short story is focussed only on that.