Hugo review: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

May 16th, 2007

Here’s the third in my series of Hugo reviews for this year. I’m well on track to review them all before the 31 July deadline for voting. So here’s Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. I’ve read two other Vernor Vinge novels before, A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Neither of them really gave me realistic expectations about this book.

In the year 2025, Robert Gu has just awakened from the nightmare of Alzheimers. Thanks to new treatments he looks like a teenager, and has (almost) all of his faculties back. But it’s a strange new world, where libraries are under threat from those who want to shred the contents, and where ubiquitous networking has transformed the way people think. The most highly prized talent is no longer the ability to do something, because you can always find someone in the world who can do it better. What’s valuable is the ability to search, to find the true information buried on the Internet, and to draw it all together.

Robert begins to piece his life back together, learning the skills that are needed. But the big players still play their game, and he is drawn into a net of intrigue involving intelligence agencies across the world.

This is a pretty mixed book. Vinge draws a compelling picture of a possible future. But he spends entirely too long building it up. One of the great dangers of world building in SF is that you want to use it all, and not keep it down to the parts that are most vital. On the positive side, Vinge tries to personalise all of the world detail he draws in through the main character. But there are still some long slabs of expository dialog in a few places, and a few subplots that serve no purpose other than to display some feature or other of this world.

This mess of distractions makes it difficult to follow the main plot at times, which is a pity because it becomes quite complicated and a bit less going on would be welcome. Almost all the characters are somewhat duplicitous in their motives, and at times I felt like making up a chart of what was going on, and what the various protagonists thought was going on. It’s generally entertaining, albeit a bit predictable overall. One nice thing was that Vinge doesn’t rest too much of the continuing novel on mysteries. In places where other authors would sustain a minor mystery for chapters, he tends to throw the solution in almost instantly. This is nice as it underlines one of the main themes of the novel, the changing cost of information, and the increased importance of search.

The characters are generally well drawn and interesting, but seem to spend most of the book alone. Very little of the book is driven by true character dynamics, with everyone pursuing their own path and agenda, often without much reference to other people. This lends to an overall feeling of isolation.

Overall I found this a quite entertaining book, packed with a lot of good ideas about the future. But a bit less futuristic detail and a bit more attention to character interaction would have improved it quite a bit. But I don’t think it would get my Hugo vote other the other two reviewed so far.

One side note – this book had the absolute worst ‘back of book blurb’ that I have seen in a long time. I’m pretty sure that not only had the person writing it not read the thing, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t even read the 10 page synopsis that they were provided with. I suspect they may have had a brief phone call about the book at some point, and maybe they wrote a couple of notes down during it. I kept waiting for the book to become more like the plot described on the back, but it just never happened.