May 28, 2006

Vinge -- Rainbows End: A Novel with One Foot in the Future

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

Computer scientist and mathematician Vernor Vinge is credited with inventing the term "technological singularity," a moment of impending accelerating technological change so profound that "seeing beyond" the point isn't possible. Vinge's ideas have been widely discussed, and a recent book by Ray Kurzweil called the The Singularity is Near documents many supporting trends in computation and scientific development suggesting that a Singularity is entirely likely. In late 2004, Jim Bennett further proposed that the English common law countries have a unique cultural advantage in dealing with rapid change and with any Singularity that might appear. So how does Professor Vinge view the Singularity at the moment?

Fortunately, in addition to his academic activities at the University of Californa (San Diego) [UCSD], Dr. Vinge is a famous science fiction writer and winner of four Hugo awards. His latest novel is called Rainbows End. Though I've not read his earlier books, a positive review and podcast on the Rainbows End by the Instapundit encouraged me to give it a try.

Having neglected most SF literature in the last 25 years, I can't comment on how this new novel relates to Vinge's older works, nor even to the general trends in modern science fiction, but taken on its own, Rainbows End has many merits. Its vision of the near future seems very plausible and welcomes further reflection after reading. If we extrapolate the changes of the last ten years, the next ten or twenty years seem likely to be filled with a headlong pace of science, technology, and occasional violence.

Nevertheless, Rainbows End won't be to everyone's taste. The focus is on one individual. The "action" is reserved for the climax. The atmosphere is rather muted. The historical sense is pretty nebulous. And occasionally, the reader is left feeling the butt of San Diego in-jokes. The novel sometimes seems like an elaborate preamble for some later effort at considering the more sober international implications of the Singularity. But there are no hints. This is 2025 from the "first-class" seats. Nothing of the jungle intrudes.

Rainbows End is the story of a brilliant, famous, and famously cruel, poet laureate retrieved from the darkness of Alzheimer's disease by an improvement in medical technology, somewhere around 2025 AD. As the poet, Robert Gu, regains cognitive function and tries to fit into a "new" world, he is inadvertently caught up in an espionage attempt on the biological labs near UCSD, which appear to house surreptitious research into YGBM (You Gotta Believe Me) mass persuasion technology.

By setting his novel in the mid-future, and spending some time in the first part of his book describing an Alzheimer's sufferer regaining adult functionality, Vinge has the perfect opportunity to introduce the reader incrementally to the new technologies and realities of 2025 in a very natural manner.

It's a world quite familiar to us, a straight extrapolation of our own time. Life is now supplemented by wearable computers with contact lens peripherals. Kids are now elaborate and skilled "gestural" users of said computers. The resources of the Internet have become even more pervasive, even more elaborate. The real world is now "tagged" with virtual reality labels that can be retrieved and viewed on demand. Education consists of learning how to use the new tools of analysis, collaboration, and construction. And so the protagonist's struggle to re-orient himself to society in a school filled with other "medically-remediated geriatrics," and less-than-motivated children, contrasts with the larger themes of the book ... the role of governments in uneasy alliance, of paranoid but well-meaning intelligence agencies trying to suppress the next disaster, and of hyper-empowered individuals trying to execute their own agendas.

Vinge leaves much of the intervening historical details between our own time and that of the novel in discreet haze. There is a suggestion of a past war with China. There's an implied working collaboration of the Great Powers (US, EU, Indo-European Alliance, Japan, China) to actively suppress the use of WMDs by small groups around the world, with "extreme prejudice." Chicago has been nuked at some point in the more recent past. There's an elaborated and fully electronic Homeland Security infrastructure working in tandem with other large nations. There's a sense of medical technology making uneven success, with notable failures.

Yet somehow the mood of the novel seems largely benign, suburban, and very middle-class. Despite an implied intervening history of considerable global trauma, the characters of the novel live life much as we do, rather blasť about global circumstances. WMD attacks seem inevitable to the novel's characters but, by and large, preventable. Is the author being "cute" then about our own time, or writing a stealth satire? Are children and Alzheimer's patients the illustrative types for our society. It's never clear. Perhaps 2025 really will be much like now ... only moreso.

The novel centers itself around a very few locales in southern California: the poet's remedial school, the library at his teaching alma mater (UC San Diego), the home of his immediate family (son, grand-daughter, daughter-in-law). A few other scenes are set in Barcelona but only as foils for "foreign" intelligence service characters to have discussions and make decisions. So this is very much an American suburban novel 20 years from now, set within new technology, and working out the machinations of governments and individuals at a relatively slow pace.

The character Gu has been identfied as a useful stalking horse because his family is involved in the US Marines, the 2025 rapid reaction force based at Camp Pendleton and responsible for WMD suppression actions. His daughter-in-law has been subjected to "JITT" -- just-in-time training -- to enhance her intelligence capacities, but it is a technique which leaves most individuals with pyschological scars. [Note: This concept reminds me of John Brunner's EPTification ("education for particular task") described in the 1968 novel, Stand on Zanzibar with similar dire results.] Gu's son is a watch commander for the regional WMD monitoring command. In recovering his cognition after Alzheimer's, the elder Gu has picked up new technical aptitudes but lost his poetic sense. And it is a mysterious stranger's promise to help recover Gu's "mojo" through even more advanced medical technology that leads the poet to accept dubious employment -- an alliance with rejuvenated former colleagues to explore the tunnels under his old university to gain access to the surrounding laboratories.

Who's behind the intrusion? What do they want? Will they be stopped?

The climax of the novel ultimately mixes whimsy with high-tech military imaginings (some quite inventive). The first stirrings of the Singularity can be traced. And the age-old antagonism of personal freedom and social stability seem on the verge of entering a new and grimmer era.

Rainbows End is a quick and easy read. Vinge's characters have enough personality to ring true ... though the quirks of academic pettiness and suburbia may not compell all readers. The novel's pacing is rather sedate but it is all in aid of getting a better feel of American life in 2025. For me, the imagined world of twenty years from now is the most thought-provoking part of the novel. The plot itself seemed rather disengaged.

Does any of this relate to the Anglosphere?

In the end, not a whole lot unfortunately, because Vinge has punted.

He imagines 2025, after a Chinese war and episodes of nuclear terrorism, as a period when the Great Nations have formed an uneasy alliance at self-preservation. Their intelligence agencies are fully integrated into the era's equivalent of the Internet. Traffic analysis, and various kinds of monitoring are de rigeur. Yet none of this seems to reflect the current statistics on relative national prosperity , nor on market-dominant minorities, nor even the accelerating pace of global crime. The international equanimity apparently comes from undeclared historical circumstances. A bit of explanation would have helped.

The spontaneous communities of the modern Internet have elaborated in twenty years and are, in Vinge's world, dynamic participants in global entertainment. The entertainment/hobby enthusiasms of our era have become "belief circles" which fully blend fantasy and community into the adult lifestyles of 2025. Again, this all seems pretty indulgent for a society under threat of WMD. A cheeky dig at our own time? Who knows?

England and a discrete Anglosphere makes no appearance in Vinge's book. India has however, by this time, come more fully into its own and is now a global player in intelligence. The US appears as a dominant player on the planet in this novel but there is no attempt to quantify its relationship with the other Great Powers. Is it a nation in decline? Does it have effective allies? We don't know.

Information has migrated more and more from the libraries of the world into electronic storage, and the final destructive digitization of books forms one of the novel's more imaginative plot points. Ordinary kids are now living in a strange hybrid of the real and virtual worlds, and education therefore expects far more of them. They form pen-pal relationships of greater depth with other kids around the world yet that collaboration seems rather trivial.

Vinge's world seems bereft of any of the concerns of 2006 ... unemployment, crime, immigration, epidemic disease, Third World poverty. It's never made clear why they are invisible in the novel. Are these problems resolved, unresolvable, or merely awaiting a sequel?

So Rainbows End is a tight snapshot of 2025 as an American soccer mom might experience it. Not everyone's cup of tea but entirely plausible. I found it worth reading but one wonders if the other shoe will drop in a later book. If Rainbows End stands on its own, then we must conclude that Professor Vinge hasn't quite sorted out how the real world gets from here to there. We can always count on Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to do their thing (often with unseemly enthusiasm for sundry tyrants) ... but it's all the places outside of Silicon Valley that give cause for worry. As they have for the last two decades, and as we can assume they will in the next two.

Posted by jmccormick at May 28, 2006 02:37 PM

Funny that a guy who is predicting such massive changes in technology does not predict concommitant changes in the underlying society. Probably not realistic, as you note. Also, it sounds oddly localized, with too little reference to the larger world which is going to impinge on us here in the USA more and more in the years ahead.

Posted by: Lex at May 29, 2006 11:09 AM

Thanks for the review. Robert Kaplan and William Pfaff are two writers I would suggest have more to offer as to the future even if they are neither novelists, mathematicians nor scientists.

Why do I think Werner Erhard when I hear Vernor Vinge? Maybe because they, along with Ray Kurzweil, are (successful) hucksters.

Thanks again.

Posted by: John R at May 30, 2006 07:22 AM
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