The eagerly awaited sequel to Vinge’s award winning A Fire Upon the Deep was published recently, so it seemed like a good time to read some of his novels. Unfortunately, everyone else in town seemed to agree with me and the waiting list for any Vinge books at the library is weeks long. Goodwill to the rescue! I never turn down a 79 cent Hugo winner, so I am now the proud owner of this near-future whirlwind. Vinge keeps enough new ideas fluttering about to power several lesser novels; I confess this time to reading a few reviews to make sure I had everything straight in my head before setting into my own attempt to distill the pure essence of Vinge-ness onto (virtual) paper.
Vinge is writing in the subgenre I will henceforth call “cyberyuppie.” Like his predecessors Gibson, Sterling, etc., Vinge fills his novel with hackers, Internet shenanigans, and a level of technology that seems tantalizingly close. Unlike these fellows, however, the people Vinge has doing that hacking are not back alley characters in black, hit men, or hookers, but high school kids, nerds, and mid-level network admins. Like his ardent disciple Charles Stross, Vinge takes the punk out of cyberpunk, and replaces it with the people who power the tech market today: the middle class. I’m sure somebody has already written a book about the connections between cyberpunk’s evolution and the democratization of high tech, but I haven’t read it yet and am left to ponder things on my own. Rainbow’s End is probably the best example I have seen of how the iPod listening, Kindle reading, MMORG playing tech middle mass is changing science fiction. Surveying the technology landscape right now, it seem just as, if not more, likely that the wanker writing that trojan horse I just picked up is not some steely character living in a capsule hotel in an Asian suburb, but really just a pimply faced yuppie’s child in Illinois. (Note: I don’t actually get trojan horses because I use Linux, but I am bravely resisting the use of second person.) This shifting reality is clearly reflected in the diversification of IT in science fiction. (Compare Stross and his cyberyuppie Halting State to the convoluted anime love letter to classic cyberpunk that is Mardock Scramble.)
These genre musings were some of the biggest questions kicked loose by Rainbow’s End, but hardly the only ones. Vernor Vinge reminds me a lot of Iain Banks or Neal Stephenson, not in subject matter or story construction, but in sheer audacity and the way that ideas carom off each other before winging out randomly and striking the reader in the face. A Fire Upon the Deep has this same kind of exuberance; just when the reader is getting used to the out-there concept of Zones of Thought, Vinge tosses in AI’s and their Frankenstein human construct, then strange pack sentient aliens, then a maniacal alien psycho that is apparently devouring entire races while the rest of the universe glances and the news and goes on with its daily business…. Now in Rainbow’s Edge, we get a Rip Van Winkle story combined with high school angst, university politics, bizarre showdowns between rival gamer/fan bases, global terrorism, mind control, the possible emergence of AI, and some marital strife thrown in for good measure. The reader is best served by sitting back, letting the madness wash over, and trying to sort it all out later.
Another concept that struck me was Vinge’s portrayal of work. The elite in his society are not just those who can make sense of the data overload inherent in a perpetually wired-in world, but those who are able to direct the hordes of individuals that sift the data. Alice Gu, one of the supporting characters, is a legendary figure in her industry because of her skill at sensing the broader trends in news and research, then nudging her army of analysts towards bigger answers. We can see this in its infantile stages now, with wikis, the blogosphere, and whatnot, but Vinge extrapolates it into a complete economy. Even his high school kids are recruited as, and recruit each other into, low-level affiliations and networks. These operate as a kind of pyramid scheme for information, as the lower levels pass their data up through the chain while rewards and money flow downward.
Finally, a more prosaic attraction was the setting. Rainbow’s End takes place mostly in and around the campus of UC San Diego, with its iconic library at the heart of the action. I don’t have much of serious connection to the San Diego area, but UCSD was my second choice for grad school. The book doesn’t give me the sense of “wow, that was my life!” like, say, Napoleon Dynamite. It does, however, add to my list of What Ifs that relate to my grad school decisions. (I made the right choice, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look wistfully at pictures of La Jolla during the long, damp, gloomy NW winter.) Anyone who has attended UCSD or spent much time there will probably wet themselves during the culmination of the combination demonstration/virtual riot/All-Consuming LARP Battle near the end of the story.
Rainbow’s End took a little while for me to get into, mostly because the first hundred pages are concerned primarily with high school and old people, not my favorite topics. Once the setup and world building are out of the way though, Vinge’s tale runs like a freight train through West Texas. The fun plot (the terrorism bit) blows through the sensitive plot (repulsive old dude figuring out his new life and redeeming himself somewhat) as everything starts to explode: high level intelligence operatives do super secret stuff, an anarchist hacker with very mysterious origins runs rampant and leaves virtual carrot scraps everywhere, nerds on missions clash in battles that rage in and out of a couple levels of reality, a lot of books are violently shredded, and Marines drop ordinance on UCSD. Good stuff. Vinge doesn’t really resolve a bunch of crucial questions at the end, which no doubt irritates some readers. Life is like that though, with inadequate closure, insufficient explanations, and a decided lack of comeuppance for bad guys. Anyone looking for a sensitive portrayal of profound characters and probing questions of what it means to be human may leave unsatisfied. They’re in the wrong genre though, so I recommend sitting back, enjoying the spectacle and getting one’s mind blown. That is, after all, what Vinge is best at.
Rating: Manchester City. Things were rocky at the start and it took awhile to get it all together, but the team is well-nigh unstoppable now.