And so we conclude our book club’s reading of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (previous posts here). With this post I’ll summarize the closing chapters, offer some reflections, and add some questions for discussion.
I have to say the novel was even more powerful for me upon this fourth reading. The education plot was especially vivid, as were the geopolitics.
And maybe my being older now made the aging stories more present.
If you haven’t finished the book, and if you’re concerned about spoilers, you’ll want to skip the rest of this post after the blue tag cloud coming up, and definitely before the library photo. We can’t talk about the novel’s end without addressing final plot developments.
…hovering immanent all around him were the worlds of art and science that humankind was busy building. What if I can have it all? (last lines, 364)
Two preparatory notes first. After getting a digital version of the novel, I cobbled up a quick word cloud:
I’m fascinated by this. There aren’t any words directly about education or technology. Instead it’s about people (so many character names), actions (know, said, look, think, made, turned), basic nouns (hand, world, years, voice, time) and basic descriptions (across, enough, old). Our main character, Robert Gu, looms large in the middle of it all. Nothing here says science fiction or the future.
On a different note, Kyle Johnson, the chief information officer of an American college, blogged these reactions to Vinge’s novel. He offers a terrific summary, and some great observations:
“One thing missing from Vinge’s world is asynchronous learning.”
“[I have] the impression that only students who can’t learn on their own attend classes. Does that mean in Vinge’s world personalized learning has won out as the primary mode of education for the “smart” students?… formal education is meant to be remedial – for the “stupid” kids and older folks that couldn’t keep learning on their own.”
“Intergenerational learning has a place in Vinge’s world as well, described as adults and high school students learning and working together (apparently with age based cliques to go with it).”
There are a number of other things mentioned in passing that are mostly both interesting and kind of terrifying at the same time, including:
- higher education running charter schools
- companies “investing” in students by paying their tuition and then taking a portion of their earnings for life
Read more. It’s excellent.
The plot: quick summary
Multiple plotlines come to a head and coincide with each other in a spectacular AR/robotic riot/performance around the UCSD library.
Rabbit leads multiple schemes along, and struggles bitterly with Alfred Gaz, damaging the global economy along the way. Alice and Bob Gu head into battle near home. Changes come to every member of the Gu family, some very hard. Robert and Juan complete their classes and look ahead to future possibilities.
Notes about the world and things
At the geopolitical level it looks like a massive intelligence and counterintelligence battle between the United States, the Indo. Union, and between factions within each… yet we can’t tell how any are resolved. Our final point of view characters exclude the spies, and see little. The fates of Gaz and Rabbit are left open… potentially for a sequel. Gaz’ biological weapon plot was foiled at least, through a combination of intrusive government domestic surveillance and independent action; is this a pointer to the rest of the 21st century?
Robert Gu becomes a better person, no longer cruel and creative in a new and credible way. Yet this is only a partial arc, as his wife still spurns him, and relations with the rest of his family are strained. He has healed greatly, yet still suffers mental gaps. The last line is a perfect mix of hope and fear about backsliding. To me this reads like fine novel-writing.
One major theme is the boundaries of digital networks. On the one hand there’s a conflict between silicon and biology, as people run into the limits of their digital plans. “Despite all her desperation to communicate, she was stuck in molecular biology.” (268) . AR schemes fall into biological damage. On the other, characters run into the weirdness and shock of being offline, notably in a “deadzone” – I count sixteen uses of the neologism.
Overall, I’m impressed at how carefully Vinge threads the needle between utopia and dystopia. There’s massive government surveillance, but it seems almost completely under the radar. Medical science has made strides forward, but people still suffer. Nobody is a clear villain, except maybe Gaz, and his actions haven’t hauled the world into darkness.
On education: the novel concludes with the end of classes, which means not just exams, but a public demonstration of student projects. Note the way Vinge maps rapid technological progress onto generational differences:
Chumlig [their teacher] had asserted in an unguarded moment that parents preferred the vocational demos, mainly because they made more sense to them than what other [more advanced] children were doing. (334-5)
On a related point, there’s a triumphant pedagogical moment with just the slightest hint of darkness:
More than anything else, the parents seemed faintly surprised by their children. They loved the little klutzes, but they thought they knew their limits. Somehow Chumlig had transformed them – not into supermen, but into clever creatures who could do things the parents themselves had never mastered. It was a time for pride and a little uneasiness. (341)
Some of the final projects combine the arts and sciences, although the most STEM-centric one seems most likely to lead to money (336).
Tom Haymes observes that the future’s model of success is based on “connecting technologies among hardware systems, between hardware and software, and, most importantly, between both and augmenting human capacities.” I wonder if Fairmont High is missing the point, or instead is introducing distributed teamwork to set students along that path.
More details of the future:
- The film industry is “sustained by” hyperactive fans, through belief circles (229). That’s a different model than today’s, where Hollywood depends instead on mass ticket sales.
- A new branch of health care has emerged, “prospective medicine” (352).
- A form of intelligence crowdsourcing is in play, with different leaders organizing “analyst pools”, sometimes drawn from disparate sources. Are we seeing this now?
- Cute idea for a new business: wikiBell (!) (241).
- Nice use of arXiv as an on-the-fly scholarly reference (268).
- The Friends of Privacy are compromised by US national security agencies (331), and kids know it (333).
Some cute jokes and references, like one spy (accidentally?) citing the old commercial: “That damned bunny. We can’t stop him. He just keeps coming and coming and coming.” (288) . Or: “Maybe this is not a good idea, he thought muzzily. But he always thought that coming out of a twenty-fee railgun launch.” (308) And as far as I can tell “Hacek” is not code for “Vinge”, although it should be.
Both are five letters, and Vinge pokes fun at his earlier novels in one paragraph about Hacekian criticism (309).
This part of the novel has some brief but still Gothic touches. Listen to these:
“It’s like a haunted house.” Juan’s voice was hushed. His hand reached out and grasped hers; she didn’t shake him loose. She needed him to keep cool. Certainly losing connectivity in the middle of an office building was an eerie thing. (241)
The stranger sighed. “No, it’s too late for that,.” He started toward them. Behind her there was the snick of something hard on the floor and she saw dark things scuttling toward her. (244)
- What do you think happened to the great antagonists Gaz and Rabbit? Why are their fates obscure?
- Bob Miller argues that Robert Gu is too awful a person to anchor the narrative. Did that put you off as well?
- What did you make of the future high school experience?
- The final chapter is titled “The Missing Apostrophe”. If that points to the novel’s title, does that refer to Robert finally finding Lena (the end of the rainbow)? Or to her refusal to reconnect with him, ending his winning streak (the end of fine things)?
- The novel is more than a decade old. How is it doing for technological prediction?
- What happened to politics in this future? Elections and political parties don’t appear. Is that an oversight, or a quiet hint of something darker?
- Is Rabbit human or AI or something else?
- The book ends with a conversation with a librarian. What is Vinge pointing towards for the library’s future?
And what did you make of the whole book?
(Thank you for reading along! I’ll start the next book quest soon.)
I enjoyed it, but I apparently wasn’t fond enough of Robert to be satisfied by an ending that was all about him. I want to know about rabbit! Otherwise, it was a well-worked out future IMO. If I had written about this level of virtual technology it would have been a dystopia, so I’m impressed by how Vinge manages to make it neither dystopia nor utopia. In fact, he seems not to even consider that it might be either of these, which gave me a nice experience of looking at the issue through a lens completely different from my own.
Isn’t Rabbit fascinating? Vinge has a history of playing with such characters, dating back to “True Names”.
Agreed about avoiding the dystopia/utopia axis, bowneps . Maybe that’s why more people aren’t talking about it now.
Next book recommendation: James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like A State” or Teju Coles’ “Blind Spot”.
This book is about the commodification of knowledge. While the masses fight over essentially skinning the library, the new elites, represented by Huerta, Vaz, Alice, and Bob are using the old elite as a proxy to fight their informational battles in the genetics lab where, not coincidentally, the real information in the library has landed. Genetics is the new library and the old library is being transformed into an approximate of the new. The data that Vaz is after is contained not in the code of books but in the code of DNA.
Robert’s cabal of washed up intellectuals are the old knowledge elite, reduced to intellectual poverty by the wash of cheap information, and, more importantly, analytics, that now rule the world. In this world the intellectual debates that characterized the labs of MIT or Stanford, and that led to information revolution that drive this novel, are quaintly out-of-date. The art of threading your way up a difficult mountain is replaced by the brute force of a funicular railway or a helicopter (if you can afford the ride).
Robert represents a middle between his son and daughter-in-law in that he is attached to this new elite but not truly a part of it – and not just because his is an asshole. He is an artist in a world of scientists. Even the scientists like Tommie who recognize the art in science are ultimately outwitted by the brute force of the computing power arrayed against them. Rabbit may represent the last bastion of art: hacking the system from within. His fate is unknown.
I think the end is intentionally ambiguous. The art of hacking simply disappears with Rabbit and Vaz. Robert and Carlos have access to huge amounts of information but it is not clear what either can do with it. In a world of absolute abundance you can have everything and nothing at the same time. Art requires scarcity.
I’m just getting started on a book that might be worth considering. It’s the new biography of Claude Shannon called “A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age.” It’s a bit left-field but certainly apropos since Rainbows End was all about struggling with the consequences of Shannon’s theories and work.