After Hours

Vinge Rainbow’s End - Book burning writ large? Or Big Brother meets the Web?

Having greatly influenced the development of cyberculture with his earlier writing, Vernor Vinge is at it once again with a vision of text-messaging gone wild to the point of near telepathy and schools where the most important skill taught is the ability to navigate the cyberworld and evaluate the credibility of sources.

Set in 2025 San Diego, computers have begun to literally consume libraries, not the way The Gutenberg Project, or Google are doing, but with groups actually lobbying to destroy the printed text after it is entered into databases.

(The folly of retaining ONLY electronic records will almost certainly be brought to the public mind in the next presidential election where a recount will consist mostly of pushing a button and reading off the numbers.)

But that is the world envisioned by Vinge where cyber reality and cyber personalities are dominant.

I have several problems with this novel, the main one being that it actually lacks vision. I didn’t find anything in this which seemed even slightly possible that I hadn’t already thought about and I’m not any great futurist. I can barely predict what I will do tomorrow; let alone what others will do in 20 years (GRIN).

Clothes with embedded computers? (Well duh.) Online access available most places! (Anybody out there own a Blackberry?) Displays built into eyeware? (Gee, sort of like a heads-up display which you can get in some cars and most fighter planes? Again, duh.) Cars will drive themselves! (Not such a great leap of the imagination when you can buy an Audi today which parks itself or an SUV with skid control.) Computers embedded in almost everything? (They are already in toasters, stoves, Elmo dolls and networked refrigerators.)

The book simply didn’t go far enough out to be interesting to me from a technology standpoint.

I don’t need someone to tell me that internet searching will be a vital skill or that people are living more and more in virtual worlds.

After all, it is a simple truism that we all already live inside our own skulls. That has always been true and recognized by philosophers at least since the days of Plato.

The only real differences are that with immersive video games and alternative lives, online worlds mean that everyone can share your virtual life and that everyone from large corporations to game designers will play an increasingly large part in shaping your virtual life instead of having it influenced more by people in your immediate physical vicinity.

That would be almost as hard to believe as that civilians would conduct online law-enforcement tasks (Anyone ever heard of Perverted Justice? Or that housewife who tracks terrorists online?)

As for the plot, I saw Sleeper and once read about Rip van Winkle – the Alzheimer’s cure angle is a minor update. There was also an old H.G. Wells novel and, as far as living in a virtual world goes, wasn’t there a movie called Matrix?

Vinge does a good job of pointing out that as we live more and more in virtual worlds, malicious people, or even those with benevolent motives will find it easier to influence and even control our thoughts and worlds. But I think I already suspected that from owning a TV.

I’d like to tell you how the book ends, and would like to say that I won’t because I don’t want to ruin the story for you. But honesty forces me to admit that I got bored about half way through and just couldn’t make myself finish it.

Note to Vinge – try less textbook and more human interest in the next novel – and, as a pioneer of cyber culture, consider publishing in both print and electronic formats. I’m sure Reed Elsevier knows how to do that; I used to work for them.

You’re welcome to chime in with opposing opinions but before you jump on my comments too hard, I would like to point that I have found some of Vinge’s earlier stories much more interesting and inventive. I just think this one is a waste of time.

For my money, one of the best cyberworld/hacker tales was and still is Melissa Scott’s “Trouble and Her Friends,” although I found it difficult/impossible to even finish some of her other works.

Not only was "Trouble" entertaining in a bubble gum and comic book (excuse me, graphic novel) sort of way, even a decade later I can see developments which keep this book from seeming entirely outdated. Although the technology forecast in the book isn’t particularly advanced, it also isn’t leaned on as heavily as it is in Vinge’s novel. I don’t even recall offhand what year “Trouble” was set in, just the future. It isn’t great literature, but it does fill a few idle hours. Unlike Rainbow’s End, I found it mildly entertaining which is all you can really demand of a novelist.

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