Reading _Rainbows End_, part 1

This week our book club starts reading Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.

In this post I’ll introduce the reading (up through chapter 9)*, sketch out the first nine chapters, offer some notes about the world, then ask some questions.

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows EndFor an introduction to our reading, links to some resources, and our reading schedule, click here.  To read other posts on this reading, click here.

1. Introduction

The novel takes place in the near future, a time which resembles our own, albeit with some crucial differences.  Information technology and media have shifted into augmented reality.  Some diseases afflicting us in 2017 have since been cured, like Alzheimer’s.

The story tracks several plot threads, including a main character learning the world after having been removed from it, several education stories, and an espionage plot which might frame out the whole thing.

2. The plot so far

A group of secretive European intelligence officers, led by one Günberk Braun, organize to stop the outbreak of a mysterious virus which could influence people’s minds… a virus which has been cultivated and designed by one of those very same officers, Alfred Gaz.

Robert Gu was a major poet in the past, then declined mentally through Alzheimer’s disease (Rainbows End is the name of the care facility where Robert Gu went).  A new therapy has cured that condition and restored some of his youth, but he has still lost many years and much knowledge, so needs to be schooled in order to re-enter the world.  This means taking classes at the local high school, learning new technology, and getting used to his family, all of which he tends to hate.    His children work in the military and intelligence areas.  And Gu can be very cruel to them and others.

Juan Orozco, a poor and ambitious high school student, receives a paying digital spying job from a mysterious entity (which is ultimately Rabbit).  Fulfilling this gig brings him into connection with Robert Gu, which brings all three plot strands together.

3. About the world

Augmented reality is widespread, accessed largely through contact lenses.  This lets people represent themselves through avatars, and view the world through a variety of interfaces (including old Windows). There are public content layers and some “deadzones.”  AR users can also communicate quickly and in some privacy.  Vinge displays that kind of conversation like so:

Jerry –> Juan: <sm>Hey, where you going?</sm>

There are AR theme parks, including one that’s a riff on Jurassic Park.  AR users can also be hacked and hijacked, apparently.  As Rabbit says about an upcoming trick to play, “Sometimes he will really be me.”

Hardware: television screens – screens in general – seem to be scarce.   Gu uses “browser paper” early on to access the digital world, which many characters disdain as old-fashioned.  Drones deliver packages, hopefully just in time.  Much technology isn’t accessible under the hood, instead being blackboxed as “No user-serviceable parts within”.  Self-driving cars are integrated into the environment.

The digital economy is crucial, and has a response in curriculum:

search and analysis [is] the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living.

Social notes: intergenerational stresses may be heating up, as Bob observes: “The taxpayers are not kind to seniors; old people run too much of the country already.”  People create and live extensively in networks, sometimes called belief circles. there are client relationships called “affiliances.”

Globalization has proceeded more deeply than it has in our time.  Character names show this, with greater mingling of different languages.

Geopolitical stresses continue, including weaponized plagues and terrorism, although some drugs have been legalized.  “There hadn’t been a city lost in more than five years.”  An Indo-European alliance competes with China and the United States.  We also learned of a shadowy digital harassment? protest? hacking? group, the Friends of Privacy.

Education: high schools are still locally funded, and unequally (“Hoover was Fairmont’s unfairly-advantaged rival, a charter school run by the Math Ed Department at SDSU”).  Shop class is back, and vital.  There’s writing or creative writing class, “Creative Composition”, which allows multiple media.  Team-based learning is widespread.

4. Some questions

Bob and Alice – is the family supposed to be an encryption reference?  Does this support the plot where Gaz might hack them?

“In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.”  Is this a position that appeals to you?

Does Fairmont High sound plausible?

How do you cope with Robert Gu being the character closest to the reader, when he’s such a terrible person?

Next week: on to the middle of the novel, chapters 10-19 (pages 103-216 in my hardcover edition).

*Apologies for this post being a day late.  I’ve been caught up leading workshops at a conference.  Thanks to Bob Miller for help.

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16 Responses to Reading _Rainbows End_, part 1

  1. Bob Miller says:

    ““In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.” Is this a position that appeals to you?”

    I think this proposition needs to survive into the future. It appears that this is something Vinge believes as well – the whole idea of “affiliances” seemed kind of interesting to me – networking taken to its logical extreme.

    If education and freedom are not the basis of having a competetive economy, what would be?

    • Tom Haymes says:

      What is the goalposts shift on what it means to have a “competitive economy”? What if the focus changes from “making money” to “providing well-being for your population”? Those sound like the same thing but they aren’t necessarily. We just assume that to be the case with our capitalist lenses. I’m not advocating communism here, which operates with the same set of lenses (but rejects their principles). I’m asking what happens if scarcity (as represented by money) becomes much rarer and more selective and, most importantly, not existential. You have all of the food you want (we are already close here in the United States – we just have a distribution problem caused by money). You have shelter. You have access to whatever education you feel like you need. That all comes before you have to work a day in your life. How does that change “national” priorities? To what extent are our nations today products of economics? I think Vinge hints at some of this disruption going on but doesn’t fully explore it (at least not yet). It seems like most vestiges of education (UCSD and Fairmont High) are vestiges of the old system with new tech tacked on and somewhat responsive to the changing population (old/young people needing retraining). However, there isn’t a sense that any of that really matters much. I would ask the group: Is really already happening?

  2. Bob Miller says:

    “How do you cope with Robert Gu being the character closest to the reader, when he’s such a terrible person?”

    I have a really hard time with Robert Gu. A guy that has been given an entirely new life thanks to miracle technology and all he does is sulk? Ugh! He’s not a good focus for the early part of the book because he’s FAR too negative. Even if we get to his redemption, it’s too much darkness for me.

    And the book has started SLOW from my perspective – we needed more cyberwar development and less offline character building – it would be more interesting to see characters built through interacting with Rabbit than the way they are developing now.

    • bowneps says:

      Actually, I really like the Robert Wu character. I thought Vinge was gutsy to have such a truly horrid POV character, and skilful in bringing us into his perspective.

      • Bob Miller says:

        I hope you’re right and there’s redemption by the end of the book!

      • bowneps says:

        Bob Miller – I would almost like it more if there wasn’t redemption. It seems as if redemption is such a ‘must-have’ nowadays, and I like subversive writing.

      • Between the two of you lies a good range of reaction to this tricky character.

        Why have such a point of view character? What does Robert represent, with his technophobia and cruelty?

  3. Tom Haymes says:

    “In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.” Is this a position that appeals to you?

    I think Vinge is playing with us with that quote as there is a huge amount of selective ignorance going on in the novel. On p. 56 (paperback edition), Vinge writes, “This is like being a child. Doing without understanding.” as he describes the activities in Fairmont High’s “shop” class, which really resembles our current concept of a MakerSpace. When Gu reads his poem, which approaches humanity on a totally different (possibly forgotten) level, Orosco is described as being “a little dazed by the strange form of virtual reality Robert Gu had created.” (pp. 64-65)

    There are so many layers of understanding necessary to survive, let alone thrive, in the world that Vinge describes. It is very much in parallel with the world we are struggling with today. This impacts education because, what is education but the ability to make sense of the world around us and to give us the tools to reshape that world for the future? A humbling challenge, both inside and outside the book. Back to my media hurricane. Really enjoying this book.

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    Book ordered. I hope we get to those ordered in expectation of their making the cut in my lifetime. Not in today’s delivery, maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, I have articles and some videos to tide me over. My son may join this round too. For comparison, Diamond Age would make a good follow up selection.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    I found Diamond Age a REALLY hard read. If we want futurist stuff, there’s an infinite selection.

  6. Pingback: Reading _Rainbows End_: part two | Bryan Alexander

  7. Pingback: Reading _Rainbows End_: the conclusion | Bryan Alexander

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