Vinge’s previous Hugo-winning books, A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky were both full of interesting extrapolations of the future and the future’s view of the present. They were also way too long and equally full of boring characters that were mouthpieces for the aforementioned extrapolations. But people ate them up anyway, so what do I know? Rainbows End completes the trifecta, winning the 2007 Hugo, and is a much more accomplished book, still full of interesting extrapolations of a much nearer, alien-free future, and only somewhat too long with marginally interesting characters. Maybe its time to go back and revisit the others, as I seem to be more in tune now with Vinge’s style (although I did read this twice and could probably stand to read it a couple more times, or at least the middle third of it). What also maybe helps is having read so much of Charles Stross, who would seem to be the British answer to Vinge, certainly more gonzo and fast-paced, but mostly concerned with the same themes of technological innovation run rampant and how people adapt to it, or don’t.
This book concerns itself primarily with Robert Gu, who about 20 years from now has been cured of Alzheimers and had his body rejuvenated, giving him a brand new lease on life, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. His only son and daughter-in-law are both government agents in differnet capacities, and his only granddaughter is a geeky teenager who wants to bring her grandfather up to date. Robert is less interested, in his previous life he was a poet, and quite the curmudgeon, such that no one from his previous circle is particularly interested in seeing him back. He has trouble getting the creative process going, and more trouble adapting to his suddenly older family and the technological immersion of everyday life that is now second nature to everyone else.
So far so good, but the middle of the book gets a little diffuse, as Robert gets caught up in a web of intrigue around a riot at the local university library. The most arresting image in the book is that of library workers tasked with shredding shelves of books, which are scanned during their destruction so they can be digitized. The software is sophisticated enough to match up all the individual bits based on the randomness of their shredded edges. This implausible explanation would seem to merely serve to justify using the imagery of shredding masses of books, but it has enough of an impact to Robert to cause him to take up the cause against it, with a little bit of personal gain thrown in if he can get access to a process called JITT that would allow him to get his creative side back in order. There’s some sort of avatar called the Rabbit that’s calling the shots, nobody knows for sure who or what he is or if in the end he ultimately wins or loses. Robert goes through something of a gradual epiphany that seems a bit lame, some incidents are never satisfactorily explained, although the ending is nicely ambivalent. Unlike Stross he focuses on a more manageable number of ideas, and Vinge’s characters, while not very compelling, are more realistic than Stross’s foul-mouthed, wise-cracking protagonists. I really want to like Vinge’s work as much as everybody else, but it always seems in the end that the whole has been less than the sum of its parts, as though the setup and the denouement were more interesting to him than what happens in between.