Vernor Vinge is best known for three things: his 1981 landmark novella True Names, cited by many as the true precursor of cyberpunk; his creation of The Singularity, that moment beyond which the future becomes incomprehensible; and the almost glacial slowness of his output—six novels and barely twenty stories in forty years.
His methods are vindicated by the quality of his work. A Fire Upon the Deep was one of the finest SF novels of the 1990s. Its prequel A Deepness in The Sky was thought by many to be even better. Both won Hugo and other awards. In the seven years since A Deepness in The Sky, Vinge has won two more Hugo awards, for his only two short works of the last fifteen years (discounting an extract from Rainbows End that appeared in a non-genre magazine in 2004). In a field noted for its fecundity, his growing weight of influence for such a small output makes Rainbows End a major event.
For the first time a Vinge novel has a near-future setting, exploring current concerns about personal and state security, and how the ever-accelerating progress in technology will affect them. Rainbows End is a political thriller set twenty years from now, when surveillance of the individual by both state and corporation is so all-pervasive that secrecy is impossible, and has been replaced by systematic disinformation. People routinely use avatars to attend remote meetings, but the avatars themselves are vulnerable to identity hijacking. Each and every electronic device can be monitored by the near-omnipresent Department of Homeland Security.
Seventy-five-year-old Robert Gu is our window into Vinge's world. Gu is Vinge's finest creation to date: an acclaimed poet who is also a misanthropic bully, targeting his victims with unerring accuracy. Alzheimer's has robbed him of his talent; his struggle to regain it only adds to his frustration, which he takes out on his granddaughter, until his son finds out and threatens to put him in a retirement home. Faced with the threat of losing contact with his remaining family, Gu starts to modify his behaviour.
Adults as well as children attend school in mixed classes, and Gu forms a partnership with nine-year-old Juan Orozco, another misfit. Juan realizes that Gu has a now almost unique gift, the ability to craft words. Ironically, the composition that so impresses Juan is only a shadow of Gu's work in his prime, but it is still noteworthy; technology is now so sophisticated that anyone can make films or other art forms, but creativity is withering without the true learning that comes with time, study, and struggle.
The new elite are those who can build networks of influence and direct their peers, and so Juan and Gu collaborate on a networking project for their exams. However, a terrorist cell has targeted Juan, and Gu is drawn into a plot to launch a highly selective biological attack. Conspiracies proliferate, and as he softens toward the boy he originally derided as his idiot protégé, Gu becomes the pawn of The Mysterious Stranger, a terrorist avatar who is Gu's Mephistopheles in a Faustian pact that threatens Gu, his friends, and his family.
Rainbows End is a complex, densely plotted novel with (ultimately) sympathetic characters that is both enjoyable as fiction, and thought-provoking about the world to come, and the world we live in now. In that respect, it is pure SF in the truly classic—"Astounding"—sense, whereby the author looks at where we are now and extrapolates in a straight line to, say, twenty years time.
We live in times of almost constant surveillance, but in Vinge's future, surveillance not only isn't going to go away, but will actually get worse. I live in the UK, which has gone far further toward constant monitoring of its citizens than the US, and has been dubbed "the surveillance capital of the western world." Those who advocate such never-ending intrusion—policemen and politicians, safety campaigners and other single-issue lobbyists, supermarket owners and manufacturers—appear to have no understanding of or no concern for the psychological consequences of asking society's members to live like lab rats, under constant scrutiny.
The characters in Rainbows End have learned to adapt to, and more importantly, have learned how to cope with the emotional consequences of, severely limited privacy, and it is this unexpected aspect that gives Rainbows End an extra dimension, beyond prophetic fiction. Rainbows End is almost a survival handbook for the times that we live in.
I'm unsure whether society will quite embrace so much change in the next two decades as Vinge would have us believe: he shares with many other technophiles an inability or unwillingness to accept most people's resistance to change. Even allowing for the increasing pace of technological advance, Rainbows End feels as if it's set twenty years too early. Nonetheless, whether it takes twenty, thirty, or even fifty years, I'm sure that much of what Vinge writes about will happen. There are enough unresolved plot threads that I suspect the inevitable sequel, but for once I didn't mind.
Rainbows End is sure to be featured on many best-of lists for 2006, and rightly so.
Colin Harvey lives just outside Bristol, in the U.K., with his wife and two spaniels. He is the author of a dozen short stories that have appeared in magazines such as Gothic.net, Pedestal Magazine, and Flash Me, while his novel Vengeance was published by the Winterborn Press in late 2005.