Books: “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge.
It’s 2025 – What happened to science, politics and journalism? Well, you know I’d be intrigued. After all, a person whose taste in science fiction I trust (my brother) told me to read this and particularly to read it just before my interview with PLoS. So, of course I did (I know, it’s been two months, I am slow, but I get there in the end).
‘Rainbows End’ is a novel-length expansion of the short story “Fast Times at Fairmont High” which he finished in August 2001 and first published in “The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge“. The novel was written in 2005 (published in 2006) and the book happens in 2025, so it is a “near-future SF”, always more difficult to write than another episode of Star Trek.
Checking (after I have read the book) the reviews on Amazon.com, I was really taken aback and it made me think about science fiction, what it is and what people expect from it. So, what follows is simultaneously a book review and my own thoughts about the genre.
Everything that is written is story-telling. An instruction manual tells a story about the way to program your DVD player. A scientific paper tells a story of the discovery. A textbook tells a story about its subject. Non-fiction does the same. Fiction has an added ability to distort reality and invent ideas from scratch. Science Fiction goes a step further by contemplating worlds different from our own.
In every piece of writing, there are several elements which have different importance in different genres. For Science Fiction, those elements are pace, style, plot, characters, scientific accuracy, technological plausibility, power of prediction and provocation of thought. Different sub-genres of Science Fiction place premium on different elements as well. So, let me devise an ad hoc classification of SF according to the criterion of which elements are most important and see if and how Vinge’s novel fits into each.
#1 SF as Entertainment
The premium is on ‘pace’. Everything else – plot, characters, science, etc. – are subservient to this. Plots usually make no sense, science is dead wrong, technology is impossible, characters are cardboard and the vision of the future is implausible. It never pretends to be anything but entertainment. We know that it will end with Good triumphing over Evil. It’s utterly predictable. Space Opera. A Western in Space. Yet, it is fun to read. Especially on a plane or while nursing a margarita at the beach. You spend a couple of bucks on a book, a couple of hours to read it, then resell it for a couple of dimes and never think about the book again. It’s fun!
Is ‘Rainbows End’ in this category? No. Its’ pace is fine – I found the story gripping – but it is not the fastest in the world. Would it be better if it was faster? No, as it would distract one from stopping and thinking.
#2 SF as Literature
This is a much more ambitious sub-genre. The important elements, depending on the particular author, are either style, the plot or the characters. The language is what is supposed to be enjoyable. The story sets a mood. Science, technology and prediction take the back seat to the importance of mood. Think of “Martian Chronicles”. Utterly wrong – yet beautiful.
Is ‘Rainbows End’ in this category? Not really, but it gets there at times. The writing is good, but nothing spectacular. The plot is plausible (I wonder who the reviewers are who found it not to be, how old they are, and in which world they live in!), the characters are multi-dimensional and ‘real’, though, like all good literature, the book does not serve all the answers on the silver platter and leaves some stuff for readers to discern for themselves (though future novels set in the same world may tie some loose ends later). I have a feeling that some of the reviewers wanted a #1 kind of SF and were unhappy that there is some ambiguity in the story. But some people asked the same from the Sopranos finale – why are they afraid of ambiguity, one wonders!
The plot of the novel is relatively simple. The book starts with two major story-threads, quickly adds a few sub-threads, but also very early shows how the threads and the characters are connected to each other and by the middle of the novel all the threads fuse into one.
The story happens on Earth in 2025. Everything and everyone is wired/online. It is difficult to find areas (e.g,. a desert here and there) with no wifi. The hive-mind rules. The plot revolves about the medical ability to restore mental abilities of nearly dead people suffering from various types of dementia, Alzheimers etc, and exploring how such people, after years and decades of ‘absence’ cope with the new world. The medicine in question is not described in any detail and it is not important (despite the protestations of some reviewers) as it is just a means for Vinge to place some old-but-rejuvenated people into this situation. He wanted to see how technologically ignorant people will cope with a technological society. Medicine is just a plot trick to make it happen.
And, the way several of those elderly characters respond is quite plausible. Each adapts in his or her own way. I find the main character, poet Robert Gu, not just plausible, but I can emphatize with him and find him quite sympathetic despite the descriptions of him as being a nasty fellow when he was younger before he got sick. The new world he was thrown into changed him. And the change is very plausible.
But most importantly, the old-but-rejuvenated folks all bring something new to the use of technology. While the youngsters in the book all use the Web in the same way, the way they grew up with and were taught in school, the elders get creative and bring their own experiences, knowledge and creative ideas to use the Web (and other technologies) in some very novel ways. This reminds me of the recent blog debate (here, here, here and here) about the ability for people over 40 to be creative in using and developing information technologies. Vinge’s answer is a strong Yes. The youngsters may be faster, may take to it more naturally, but they are just as likely to get stuck inside a thinking box as anyone, and they lack the knowledge and experience of their elders. The youngsters know how to do it, the elders know what to do with it. The two generations, thus, in this book, often work together and use each others’ strengths towards a mutual success.
One of the aspects of the plot – a final battle between two groups of Web denizens – is something that nobody commented on (except one amazon reviewer who thought it was implausible to begin with). An important part of the story is the Libraerome – an effort to put all the books of the world freely available online. The catch is – in order to do this, the company has to physically shred the books. This, of course, strikes a horror note into the hearts of the elders and they decide to fight against it (though each one of them changes his/her view on it over the course of the story). At the final battle, though, the side that fights for Librareome, thus presumably the side of modernity, is the group that is medievally hierarchical in structure and style. The side fighting against the shredding of the books, presumably a more conservative one, is a Pokemon-like, individualistic, semi-anarchic group that cherishes individual creativity. Nobody noticed that little trick of Vinge’s. Ah well….
#3 SF as Textbook
If a narrator or a character spends several pages explaining the basic science, this is poor style and bad fiction. Vinge does not do that. He gives only as much science as is necessary to explain the plot. And that is good.
The accuracy of science is always a question concerning SF (just watch the comment thread here and contrast to the voice of reason here, both sparked by the discussions here and here, and followed by comments here and here). There are purists that demand that 100% of science in SF be factually correct.
But, this is fiction: story-telling which distorts reality, by definition. SF stands for both “science fiction” and “speculative fiction”. The main plot device of the genre is to take some science or technology, tweak it (i.e., make it partially “wrong”) and see how that affects the world. In some cases, the tweak is huge. How would the world look like if some basic law of physics was different? In other cases, the tweak is minimal, including in ‘Rainbows End’. When science is not just changed, but completely abandoned for magic, it is not SF any more, but fantasy (OK, there are more distinctions between the two genres: Fantasy explores the past, is nostalgic about the good old Golden Age of the Dark Ages, and is essentially conservative, while SF is forward-looking, liberal, optimistically exploring the future with enthusiasm even in anti-utopias).
Many of the “purists” bash Greg Bear and his ‘Darwin’s Radio’ and ‘Darwin’s Children’ opus. But, the science in these two novels is not just 99.9% correct but also cutting edge! Bear spent a couple of years studying the literature, much of which is not generally well known (and certainly not in textbooks) which is something rarely done by SF writers. One thing he changed about science – the superfast rate of evolutionary change, implausible but not impossible – was absolutely necessary for the plot and this is what people bash him for! Go get a life!
In Vinge’s novel, science is backstage. There is not much he had to change or predict. The medical stuff is somewhat plausible. The molecular research (lightly described near the end) is almost plausible. The online technologies described are very plausible. All of that is just a backdrop for the story, should be understood as such and one need not ask for more (though, again, some of it may become more important in subsequent volumes set in this world). Just sit back and anjoy the story!
#4 SF as Futurology
SF writers write and write and write. Every now and then, they may come up with an idea that subsequently becomes reality. Then they are touted as ‘visionaries’. Vernon Vinge invented the Internet in one of his ancient stories, after all, many years before Al Gore thought of it. But SF is story-telling, not futurology. The SF novels are thought-experiments, not scientific exercises in accurate prediction. The accurate predictions are creatures of accident, not something that authors actively court.
As Vinge has written some novels before that have a faster pace, more complex plots, and greater reliance on science/technology, I can understand why some of his fans were underwhelmed with this novel. It did not meet their expectations on those points. But some of his best old works have no pretense of being predictive, so why are people asking him to do that now? Most of the negative responses by reviewers on Amazon and on blogs focused on this aspect of the novel.
The year 2025 was taken arbitrarily. All Vinge needed was enough time for some technologies to develop, yet not too much time to make the resuscitation of senile elders too implausible. Thus, it is a compromise year. It is not meant to be an accurate prediction. He is playing with ideas here, not indulging in amateur efforts at futurology.
It is kinda funny to read the reviews that argue with Vinge about this or that technology and how is it going to look like in 2025. Some say he goes too far. Others say he does not go far enough. Much of the technology described in the novel is almost achievable today. But the technology is not the character of this novel. It is the society and how the technology affects it. So, the technological mini-details are not so important. It does not matter if Vinge got the browser interface right or wrong – it is important what the characters who are plugged all the time wherever they are do with it. Not having to be in a particular place in order to be online, and not having to use your hands to use the Web – those are the premises explored in the book, not the exact technological means of achieving this. Having digital overlays on reality is something like taking Second Life and making it mobile. Not too implausible, IMHO, and again, needed for the plot, not an exploration of technology in itself.
Also, I may disagree with Vinge on the plausibility of automatic, robotic, self-driving cars, but it does not matter – he needed these so kids (and the rejuvenated) could go places while being too young to learn to drive. It is a plot device, not a prediction.
For some strange reason, many of the reviewers are hung up on the idea of Singularity (read this, this, this and this). Why? This book has nothing to do with it? Just because Vinge invented the word and the concept?
The main idea of the Singularity is that, due to the fast rate of development of technology, it will become impossible to predict the future development of technology (when was it ever predictable?). So, how do reviewers think they can predict future technology? And they argue if ‘Rainbows End’ is pre-Singularity or post-Singularity novel. Funny. Irrelevant.
Also, Vinge gave 4 or 5 possible ways to achieve Singularity, yet the reviewers only think of a scenario in which cyborgs take over the world and beat us up. Vinge also postulated the connectivity of too many players as one of the scenarios, something that may be much more relevant to this novel, if one wants to look at it that way.
So, is ‘Rainbows End’ a book in this category (#4)? No. The predictions are all plausible but that is irrelevant. They are just logical extrapolations from the present. The point of these is not prediction, but setting up the stage for the story.
#5 SF as Thought-Provoker
The most interesting SF is that which makes you stop and think. The best SF is certainly in this category (OK, the very best, including some of the older Vinge novels, is simultaneously in all five categories). Think of “Brave New World” or “Man In The High Castle”, for instance. ‘Rainbows End‘ fits squarely in this category. Plausible world of the future, gripping, plausible plot, plausible three-dimensional characters – all those are just icing on the cake and a pretext to make the reader stop and think. It certainly made me stop and think many times. Heck, I finished the book two months ago and I am still thinking about it and writing a post late at night!
What is the book about? It’s about the Web. The Internet. Where it is going and how that will affect the world. Let’s look at it in some detail:
Nowhere in the novel is there any mention of newspapers, radio or television. Yet, the characters get their news – online. Poor users (e.g., the rejuvenated) get their news crude and unfiltered, an equivalent of a novice internet users today who get news on AOL, MSN or CNN websites. The savvy know how to set up their news filters in order to get the correct information. Sorta like having, today, a newsfeed of the best blogs and news websites. BTW, the word blog, or even the concept of a blog, is also not mentioned anywhere in the book.
Who produces the news? It is not stated explicitly, but it appears to be a mix of professional and “citizen” journalism.
The main mode of communication between individuals is “silent messaging”, i.e., instant messaging that nobody else can detect. Just a matter of online privacy and security.
The entire nature of information (read that thread!) has changed. The schools followed. They do not teach facts, but teach the ways to get the facts and use the facts. All online, of course.
Unfortunately, there is still a digital divide: the kids of educated parents end up in advanced “track”, while the disadvantaged kids (and the ‘rejuvenated’) end up in the remedial classes. The difference – the rich get more techno-savvy, the poor get more creative.
Universities are still alive and well. Full of students. Thirst for knowledge has not been killed by online gaming yet. But doing original research is getting harder and harder to do – everything is already available online and analysis of patterns can do in seconds what a Dissertation used to take years to accomplish, especially in the humanities.
A big biotech lab is a centerpiece of the story. Happy scientists do their jobs in there. It’s much more high-tech than now (though lab animals are still in full use), but the scientific questions are similar: evolution of consciousness, for instance.
How does one get answers to scientific questions, or get new technologies developed? By using the hive-mind. There are online boards and forums. You go there, offer virtual money, and the collective effort of the people on there provides you the answer in a timely fashion. It is so powerful that you can rely on the people to design you a new technology according to your specifications, and do it in time for you to go ahead with your plans, certain that the technology will be available to you at the time when you need it.
Politics and Society
One of the mistakes reviewers I’ve read make is to compare this novel to other Singularity novels by Vinge and others. To Gibson and Stephenson, for instance. They miss the boat entirely, I think. But perhaps I need to read more cyberpunk….
My immediate response while reading this book was to compare it to “Fahrenheit 451″ and to “1984″. Why?
Books. In “Fahrenheit 451″, the ‘firefighters’ burn books and nobody objects because everyone is too dulled by entertainment (TV). The few objectors are heroes of the story. They deposit the books into a different medium – the memory banks of their wetware, the brains.
While “Fahrenheit 451″ is pretty black&white, “Rainbows End” is more nuanced, as well as turned upside down. Fervent protectors of the books are anti-heroes. They prevent books from being deposited into a different medium due to their own emotional attachment. After all, although physical books are being destroyed, the information they contain is not. But, due to their act of subversion, they actually do something good: they delay the shredding activity of the company. This gives competitors time to catch up, invent a nicer technology and, most importantly to provide all the books online to everyone everywhere for free forever! The one company that started it first intended to make online books available for only six months before hiding them behind a paywall.
A lesson about information wanting to be free and needing to be free. A lesson for newspaper publishers and, yes, the science publishers as well.
How about “1984″? In “Rainbows End”, the communication is two-way via the Web while in Orwell’s novel it is two-way via television. In one, the technology is oppressive, in the other, it is freeing.
The world of “Rainbows End” has eerily similar geography to “1984″ – the world is divided into three huge superpowers. But while Orwell envisioned the three in constant wars, Vinge sees them as modern, benevolent, democratic societies and allies. But there is one big difference – the Southern hemisphere! In “1984″ it is not even mentioned. In Vinge’s world, there are still many small countries in the south. They are just too weak to be able to prevent their land from being used as bases for various nefarious types, from drug traffickers to terrorists. It is those fringe criminal groups that the three big Northern countries have to deal with all the time and they work together, using the Web and computers of course, to protect themselves from the danger. I will not give out the main spoiler of the book now…. Read it yourself.