Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vernor Vinge - Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End, Tor, 2006.

Spoiler warning!

Poet Robert Gu is given a new lease of life. He emerges from the confusion of Alzheimer's healed and rejuvenated, in a teenage-looking body. But the world has changed while he was ill, and now he must learn how to use the new technology, so he goes back to school. He is helped by his young granddaughter Miri and some of his new school friends. As he adapts to his new situation, he realizes he has lost his gift for poetry, but acquired some technical skills. He also realizes that he used to be a selfish and nasty person and pushed away his family.

Meanwhile, we learn that a senior intelligence agent is planning to release a "You Gotta Believe Me" virus, which will brainwash the world's population. Several intelligence professionals are trying to prevent this from happening, but who can they trust?

The plot converges on a university library, where the books are shredded and then scanned. The library is restored as a VR version of its former physical self, with haptic feedback so users can feel the images they see. This raises questions about the importance of books. Readers will already be in one camp or the other (to some extent), depending on whether they are holding the dead-tree copy or reading an electronic version of the book. My own opinion is that no matter how we value our physical books, eventually most information will be purely digital. This makes sense in terms of saving the environment and more efficient usage of space. I still read most of my books in physical form, and have overburdened bookshelves. I expect to read an increasing proportion in electronic form in coming years. The content matters more than the form.

This is a complex, thought-provoking and entertaining work, with many levels and sub-plots. One that interested me was the fate of Robert's ex-wife, who is suffering from an incurable disease. The time will soon come when some medical conditions can be reversed and some people can be rejuvenated, but at first this will only be available to a few people, with particular diseases and enough money to afford it. The first to receive these treatments will be in an unenviable position. They will have to accept that some of their contemporaries will suffer and age and die, while they live on, perhaps for many more decades. They will be viewed with jealousy and perhaps feel survivors' guilt. Their life experience will become worthless in a rapidly changing society. This will be a transitional generation, and there will be many lessons to be learned before rejuvenation becomes universally available.

This is a story of ideas, but it also has interesting characters, a vividly depicted near future, a thrilling plot and moments of humour and emotion.

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