Book Review: ‘Rainbows End’ by Vernor Vinge

'Rainbows End' by Vernor Vinge

‘Rainbows End’ by Vernor Vinge (UK HBK 0312856849, Tor Books, May 2006)

The year is 2025. The world is wired. Alfred Vaz, undercover WMD investigator for the Indo-European Alliance, is playing games within political games. He has recruited a mysterious online agent to assist him in an investigation that has more hidden levels than his co-workers realise.

Meanwhile Robert Gu, erstwhile feted poet and general misanthrope, is being raised out of the crevasse of Alzheimer’s that has isolated him for years. The world that modern medicine restores him to is a far cry from the one he remembers; he has a lot to learn, and there are plenty of people with a vested interest in him learning certain things rather than others.

Compared to Vinge’s past output, Rainbows End is a short book. It also differs in its definite timeframe; this story gives the impression of being as much a prediction as it is a piece of entertainment. It is a credit to Vinge’s genius that neither facet overwhelms the other. The near-future world he describes is fascinatingly plausible, while the story itself is brilliantly compelling.

This edge is due to the skilled use of character to drive the narrative. Vinge has created a cast of flawed and believable protagonists, who interact and double-deal in ways that reveal their inner drives. The reader is sucked in, wanting to help out characters in distress and dish the dirt on the bad guys. The line between the two is often fairly thin.

The technology is more than enough to satisfy a speculation addict. On the surface is a modern information society in full flower, but lurking beneath are subtle elements of totalitarian dystopia. A panoply of tropes are deployed, from the notion of fully immersive entertainment media and multiple levels of virtual reality, through to wearable computer hardware, library digitisation and intelligent architecture, to name but a few.

Rainbows End examines our present through the lens of an imagined future, one that we simultaneously yearn to live in and fear may come to pass. The thoroughness of Vinge’s world-building and the measured revealing of the end product make this a stunning and visionary novel.

{NB: This interview originally published in Interzone #204, republished here with the permission of the editor.}

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