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.
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.