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Vernor Vinge
Rainbows End
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-312-85684-9
Publication Date: 05-30-2006
368 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 06-05-06

Index: Science Fiction

Literature has the rather peculiar potential to thrill the reader. But what is meant by that verb changes depending on the book. We typically want to call lightweight, action-packed books that evoke this emotion "thrillers" and generally dismiss them as disposable. But one can be as thrilled by a work of non-fiction as one might be by a tale of toe-tapping terror. Imagine the emotional response of those who first picked up The Origin of Species, or even The Elements of Style. In fact, both works could be justly deemed thrilling to readers picking them up now, even with years of familiarity behind them. One need not read an action-packed punch-out to experience literary thrills. Ideas in literature are far more thrilling than action.

Prepare to experience intellectual thrills and idea-driven chills when you pick up Vernor Vinge's 'Rainbows End'. In the fiery first pages, Vinge, a mathematician, will send your sense of wonder through the roof, with a curiously compelling mix of probability and data trawling. It's 2025, and the data wonks have discovered some ominous facts buried in the blizzard of bits. Someone has put together disparate pieces of technology in a manner that will curl your toes with terror. Not a single character is harmed in the process and in fact, none are even really revealed. But with the sleight of hand available to the skilled science fiction writer, Vinge sets up a premise that makes you pray that the wrong people don't decide to read this book. Science fiction is often described as a literature of ideas, and Vinge proves that ideas are every bit as thrilling as gunplay. Indeed, more so.

But even the most thrilling ideas will start to ring hollow if there's no human angle. Vinge's future is complex even if it is on the conservative side so far as technological innovations go. To take the reader into that world, Vinge introduces as his protagonist Robert Gu. In our time an award-winning poet, he was difficult to get along with, a man who made enemies as easily as poetry. But he succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, and the Robert Gu known to the world essentially disappeared. Until the beginning of 'Rainbows End'. A cure has been found for the particular form of Alzheimer's that would have eventually killed Gu. What’s more, he's lucky enough to respond well to a broad range of rejuvenation therapies. Gu leaves senescence behind, and is forced to enter and learn how to live anew in the world he finds, a world in which Vinge has already evoked wonder and terror in equal measures.

'Rainbows End' is the work of a writer at the height of his powers, carefully crafted and exceedingly well-written. Robert Gu is not only not a nice guy, he's an active jerk. He's despicable by just about any standard. Thrust back into the family that was frankly happy to see him leave, he's barely tolerated in his own son's house. And in order to learn how to live in the world, he's going to have to go back to Fairmont High, setting of Vinge's award winning novella 'Fast Times At Fairmont High'. There, he will cross paths with the forces that triggered the data wonks' fears in the opening pages of the novel. Nothing less than the fate of the world is at stake. But Robert Gu just wants to upstage an old rival and re-connect with his ability to write poetry.

In a short 364 pages, Vinge not only manages to write a wonderful portrait of a future family tearing itself apart and being torn apart. He offers a veritable feast of thrilling ideas, served up through a plot that is intricate and only occasionally verging on incomprehensible. This is not to say the writer doesn't know what’s going on. Rather, Vinge has so carefully constructed his world that the reader will be well aware that there are whole nations beyond the scope of the plot and characters that nonetheless play a part in their lives. The novel is science fiction the best possible sense of the word, a literary novel of ideas that are compelling and truly thought-provoking. Plus, it's really, really exciting and even better, often very funny.

Vinge plays so even-handedly with his world and our future that his cautious optimism allows him a generosity with character and plot that is not often found in fiction this sophisticated. Even if Gu is a quintessential jerk, he's most assuredly not stupid, and readers will delight in his predicaments. His family, his friends both old and new, all come to life. The data and security wonks who drive the plot move it at light speed, with motivations that speak to our world's current balancing act between security and liberty. There is a huge cast of characters, but they're all well-nuanced and quite memorable, even those who are mere bit players.

The range of science fiction ideas addressed here is breathtaking, and the literary techniques that Vinge deploys to unpack them for the reader are equally breathtaking. Those looking for easy answers and simple conclusions are advised to look elsewhere. Vinge seamlessly merges the good and the bad, the ugly and beautiful in his world. This is neither a utopia nor is it a dystopia. This is not a simplistic evocation of Vinge's concept of the Singularity, though the world we're shown is clearly showing signs of approaching this watershed. You could even make an argument that this is a novel of first contact, though if that is the case, it's like no other novel of first contact before it. That would not, however, be particularly surprising. Vinge very carefully treads a lot of new ground. This is a world that primarily feels as if it is real, as if it has come to life for the reader.

Starting off as a pure, adrenaline-fueled conceptual thriller and driving fearlessly into the living room of a semi-functional family of the future, 'Rainbows End' offers us a look at portions of that future we’re not often shown in the genre. The aged tend to get the short shrift in science fiction, but not here. Robert Gu, even though he's a rejuvenated genius poet, is an excellent aging everyman, pulled from the aeries of academia and shoved back in at the bottom of the heap. Gu's journey takes the reader from the present to a future that seems every bit as real, as annoying and gorgeous and beautiful and bountiful and deadly as our present. This is a world that may leave you a bit bewildered, in the way that life does, but a world that will not leave you, even after you finish. Vinge's vision continues to unpack inside your brain, a virus every bit as insidious as that first mental computer virus: a thrilling idea.

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