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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Reading List: Rainbows End

Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. New York: Tor Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8125-3636-2.
As I have remarked upon several occasions, I read very little contemporary science fiction, apart from works by authors I trust to deliver thoughtful and entertaining yarns. This novel is an excellent example of why. Vernor Vinge is a former professor of mathematics, a pioneer in envisioning the advent and consequences of a technological singularity, and serial winner of the most prestigious awards for science fiction. This book won the 2007 Hugo award for best novel.

And therein lies my problem with much of present-day science fiction. The fans (the Hugo is awarded based on a vote of members of the World Science Fiction Society) loved it, but I consider it entirely devoid of merit. Now authors, or at least those who view their profession as a business, are well advised to write what the audience wants to read, and evidently this work met that criterion, but it didn't work for me—in fact, I found it tedious slogging to the end, hoping it would get better or that some brilliant plot twist would redeem all the ennui of getting there. Nope: didn't happen.

Interestingly, while this book won the Hugo, it wasn't even nominated for a Nebula, which is chosen by professional writers, not the fans. I guess the writers are closer to my stick-in-the-mud preferences than the more edgy fans.

This is a story set in a 21st century society on the threshold of a technological singularity. Robert Gu, a celebrated poet felled by Alzheimer's disease, has been cured by exponentially advancing medical technology, but now he finds himself in a world radically different from the one in which his cognition faded out. He has to reconcile himself with his extended and complicated family, many of whom he treated horridly, and confront the fact that while his recovery from dementia has been complete, he seems to have lost the talent of looking at the world from an oblique angle that made his poetry compelling. Further, in a world of ubiquitous computing, haptic interfaces, augmented reality, and forms of social interaction that seemingly come and go from moment to moment, he is but a baby among the plugged-in children with whom he shares a classroom as he attempts to come up to speed.

Then, a whole bunch of stuff happens which is completely absurd, involving a mischievous rabbit which may be an autonomous artificial intelligence, a library building that pulls up its columns and walks, shadowy intelligence agencies, a technology which might be the key to large-scale mind control, battles between people committed to world-views which might be likened to an apocalyptic yet trivial conflict between My Little Pony and SpongeBob, and a “Homeland Security” agency willing to use tactical nukes on its own homeland. (Well, I suppose, the last isn't so far fetched….)

My citation of the title above is correct—I did not omit an apostrophe. The final chapter of the novel is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”. Think about it: you can read it either way.

Finally, it ends. And so, thankfully, does this review.

I have no problem with augmented reality and the emergence of artificial intelligence. Daniel Suarez's Daemon (August 2010) and Freedom™ (January 2011) limn a future far more engaging and immeasurably less silly than that of the present work. Nor does a zany view of the singularity put me off in the least: Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (February 2011) is such a masterpiece of the genre that I was reproached by some readers for having committed the sin of spoilers because I couldn't restrain myself from citing some of its many delights. This can be done well, but in my opinion it isn't here.

Posted at November 18, 2012 22:50