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Bewildering Stories

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Author: Vernor Vinge
Publisher: Tor, 2006
Hardcover: $25.95 U.S.
Length: 364 pages
ISBN: 0-312-85684-9

Does anyone realize just how drastically the art of writing a story has changed in the last hundred years? What I’m thinking of, specifically, is how story openers have changed. Let’s take, for example, the famous opening line of Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). After announcing “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator takes a leisurely stroll through city and country. Then we get his reasons for going to sea; we practically get a philosophical treatise. No one’s in a hurry, neither reader nor story-teller. We know we’re going to get acquainted with this guy. We’re going to know his soul.

Contrast that typically nineteenth-century leisure with the opening of a typically modern story I picked up last week. In J. V. Jones’ “The Baker’s Boy,” we start off with the nasty murder of the narrator’s old servant; next, our ungrateful narrator drugs and then rapes (in queasily graphic detail) a helpless woman; and at the point that I closed the book, no more than a handful of pages into the story, we have the even more stomach-churning flashback of how the narrator killed his own dear old Mom. Sorry, folks, no book review of this one. I just couldn’t get past the matricide. I wish I hadn’t gotten past the rape.

I don’t want to try to number the stories I’ve picked up recently (in my innocence) that start with such an apparently de rigueur shocker. I can’t even relate the particulars of the most recent one in a family forum such as Bewildering Stories, except to tell you that what was done in the first three pages was worse than Mr. Jones — or, I assure you, I — could imagine. I found myself looking at the eminently ordinary, pleasant, salt-and-pepper bearded face of that latter author and wondering... when a writer channels the Jack the Ripper mind-set so well, what’s really in his soul?

Thank goodness, then, for Vernor Vinge. There’s brightness there. It shines through his writing as an essentially humanistic light. Yes, we have villains and rascals in his stories. We have troubled old men and troubled youths. But people find redemption, sometimes. Villains account for their misdeeds in a tangle of typically human self-justifications. No one’s entirely black or white. That’s Life, written the way it happens. Do I feel good instead of scum-dipped after finishing a Vernor Vinge story? Yes, and what a nice change that is.

In Rainbows End, Robert Gu is a man re-born. Alzheimer’s disease was slowly destroying him. But modern technology came to the rescue. Gu is a Rip van Winkle returned to a time he no longer understands. He has a newly functioning brain and body, and that’s a great gift. But he’s lost something. He was a world-famous poet. He was also a monstre sacrè. His genius had its roots in an interpersonal cruelty as perceptive as it was destructive. Now he’s lost both talents. Robert Gu knows what he used to be. He still has to find out what he can be.

His most pressing question is whether he can catch up to the technological advances enough to survive (i.e., earn a living) in the wired world of the future. Imagine all the functions of the most advanced Internet gateway transposed into the human head. Wired means wired in the head. There’s the plain vanilla reality that Gu is used to seeing, and there’s selective reality — that drab house on the corner seen through a new paradigm becomes a fanciful castle, or a Terry Pratchett-inspired zany purple edifice.

So far, futuristic as this sounds, we’re not looking at anything that hasn’t been well-trodden by the likes of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. But Vinge envisions a new weapon of mass destruction for his future, and someone is on the loose with it in Rainbows End. YGBM stands for “You Gotta Believe Me,” and Big Brother would have loved it. A massive crowd at a sports event views an innocuous advertisement, and there’s an unexplained run on candy nougats. People whose business it is to watch for such things know that someone out there has just successfully tested a new YGBM super-weapon... which could change the world as they know it.

Who’s the culprit? It looks like the villain might even be scarier than Mr. Vanilla Terrorist or some monster of unbridled capitalism... the infective YGBM agent appears to come from a top-secret laboratory owned by the (still-super powerful) Americans. Soon we have spies and agents provocateurs — not all of them in corporeal form — climbing all over each other. The reborn Gu, in turn, finds himself in the less-than-enviable position of the man-on-the-inside, ready-made for the role of betrayer. Will Gu sell out his loved ones to regain the lost poetic art he craves, or will he come to terms with the new, and less gifted, man he is now? Read the book and find out.

I suppose there’s little here in terms of ideas that Gibson or Stephenson, not to mention that eminent futurist George Orwell himself, haven’t done before. I’m left with the same questions I always ask. Isn’t there an intrinsic value to reality itself, vs. a reality viewed through a rosy filter of one’s personal choice? When our phenomenal consciousness becomes entirely diverse (in other words, I see red, and you see purple; I see a house, and you see a castle), what damage have we really done to our shared humanity? Why is artificial reality so attractive? Given the choice, would we choose to look at the world as it is, or through a filter which turns every house into a castle or every car into a snorting steed?

One fine day, we may find out... or we may not. The mere computational cost of such totally interactive, real-time filters as described by Gibson, Vinge et al may prohibit such a future. Rarely do our futurists ever seem to worry about what makes these wired futures commercially viable. I guess I’m old-fashioned: I always ask myself where the money is made, and if money isn’t being made, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Stone age to post-human, dirty old profit still makes the wheels turn. Ask Microsoft. Our wired futures may be a lot worse than we think they will be. Imagine: spam delivered straight to your head.

So perhaps it’s not ideas that make me fond of Vernor Vinge’s story. People, in the end, make stories we want to read. Vinge’s deft characterizations make me happy to pick his books up. Keep your rapist, matricidal, gut-skewering protagonists. I don’t want to spend time with them. The wandering Ishmael and brave little Miri from Vinge’s story are more my style. Bring on the good vibes, Mr. Vinge!

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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