Terran's Reviews > Rainbows End

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
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Jan 17, 09

Read in May, 2007

I was prepared to dislike this book, given that Vinge is hardly one of my favorite authors. (E.g., see my reviews of A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.) But this was a gift from a graduating student, so I felt obligated to try.

I was surprised and gratified to discover that I actually rather enjoyed this book. For one thing, it was the closest that Vinge has come to interesting characters. It's also set in the relatively near future, at the precipice of The Singularity, which is an interesting area to play in.

Broadly, the story concerns the interactions of a few people in this society of exploding technology. The nominal A plot is about efforts to discover and foil a group of bio-terrorists who are attempting to develop The Next Very Bad Thing -- a bio-weapon, whose intent is slowly unfolded through the book. There is the requisite high drama denouement, in which the protagonists race against time, all odds, and FedEx to foil the Big Bad's plots.

More interesting was the plot surrounding an ex-Alzheimer's patient who has been renewed by the astounding gerontological technology of the day-after-tomorrow. The book traces the course of his almost complete rebirth, rediscovery of self, his struggles to cope in the strange new world that has emerged while he drifted in hazy clouds of mental deterioration, and his discovery of the changes in self and personality wrought by the disease and recovery. I found this thread -- the development of his character and self-discovery and his struggles to find a new relationship with his family -- to be the most interesting, plausible, and compelling parts of the book.

One sour note was a protracted and (naturally) absurdist homage to Terry Pratchett (and another author whom I'm afraid I don't know). That sequence, involving a massive, partially VR/partially LARP conflict between fervid adherents of the two authors around and within the Geisel Library at UCSD, was fun as a standalone sequence, but really didn't fit into the greater structure of the book. I found it distracting and somewhat annoying.

The technology of the near-Singularity of the book's day-after-tomorrow setting is interesting and semi-plausible. It's largely from a computer scientist's perspective (naturally), so it prominently features "if this goes on" kinds of extensions of existing information technology: omnipresent access to information networks, computers and displays embedded in clothing, tiered access to essentially infinite computing resources and information banks (which baddies are constantly using to try to whip up The Next Very Bad Thing), etc. I see signs of an educated reader of cutting-edge CS research poking through: randomized algorithms and computer vision technologies used to scan books at high speed, massive genetic sequencing and computationally-guided parallel genetic experimentation, and so on. Children are trained in internet search more than in any other single skill.

The part that I find implausible is Vinge's assertion (seemingly common among SF authors) that mere access to infinite amounts of information will make children creative geniuses. For example, we have high school students who solve key technological problems for developing nations as a matter of course. I just can't buy it. High school kids will, I think, still mostly be obsessed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and will spend rather less time being techno-wizards. And even the ones who want to be techno-wizards will find that it still takes a great deal of time to become expert enough to make a real impact. It simply takes time to see enough designs and play with design spaces enough to be able to put together elegant and powerful things. Ideas that are easy enough for HS students to put together are also easy enough for professional engineers and technologists to put together, only the latter have access to a substantial background of good design ideas and experience, not to mention considerably deeper pocket-books.

This facet of the story reflects a deeper meme about The Singularity that I find implausible: that the exponentially growing technology of society implies that individuals are growing in capability exponentially quickly. This idea, while attractive, is psychologically implausible. Humans simply take a certain minimum time to learn new things and become proficient in new skills. (For example, psychology and neuroscience have shown that humans can really process and store only roughly 1-3 bits of information per second, it takes 2000-5000 repetitions of a physical action to become truly fluent in it, and it takes something like thousands of hours of practice to become expert in a skill.) Until you're re-engineering the human brain itself, you're simply not going to change the average rate at which people become experts. While I'll agree that having access to more powerful technology does provide a great deal of leverage to increase an individual's capabilities, what that individual can really do with that technology is still band-limited by their personal expertise, which takes time to develop.

So, rants aside, my final assessment is that I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable I found this book. I am indebted to my former student for having picked it out, because I almost certainly would not have picked it out for myself.

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