About an old man, Robert Gu Sr, formerly a world class poet. who is brought back from mental oblivion (Alzheimers) and rejuvenated. He regains his mental faculties and youth through miraculous medicine. He opens his eyes to San Diego, 2025 and a lot has changed. He was never into technology before so he is thoroughly unfamiliar with the way the world works now.
He enrolls as an adult student at the local high school, Fairmont High, to learn how to use the ubiquitous computer systems that daily life so depends on. While retraining, Robert moves out of Rainbows End, an adult care facility, and in with his son Bob, his wife Alice and his granddaughter Miri. Robert was not a very likeable fellow in his previous life. He was a literary elitist and didn’t suffer the company of fools. As a result, his wife Lena divorced him, his son dislikes him and he had few friends. Lena dislikes her former husband so much, she allows him to believe she is dead in order to not deal with him. However, Robert is a changed person once recovered. While he still has some of his old thoughts and attitudes he suppresses them and is more tolerant of others. He loses this ability to write poetry, but gains a new interest in technology which he never had. Be becomes technically capable for the first time in his life.
Vinge does an excellent job seeing the possibilities of the near future. Wearable computers, displays implemented in contact lenses, mesh networks everywhere, digital certificate use for every interaction and self driving cars are all very well thought out and convincing. The impact of this technology and the kinds of new skills people need to have to be effective is also well done. Plenty of dialog is done through silent messaging (like SMS) without other parties even aware its occurring. Virtual presences/avatars are a part of everyday life. Mesh networks provide a kind of real-time Google streetview for everyone. High school students possess skills and capabilities that only the most expert of adults attained only a generation ago. It seems William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge are all looking into the same crystal ball.
The grand plot involves Alfred Vaz, an Indian spy master secretly developing biological weapons of the thought-control variety. The commercial lab where this is secretly done is not far from Fairmont High and UCSD university that Robert formerly taught at. Vaz’s colleagues detect the possibility of this lab and Vaz is forced into a complicated plot to clandestinely investigate his own lab. He hires the services of The Rabbit, a virtual player who will plan a diversion to allow intelligence forces to inspect the lab. The Rabbit provides deniability and Vaz expects to be able to manipulate him.
As part of Rabbit’s plan, Robert is used to gain access to the top US military analyst Colonel Alice Gu. He is also subtly encouraged to become a member of the Elder Cabal, a group of old graduate friends who plan on organizing a protest to protect the real books in the university library from destruction (which occurs during digitization). The protest provides the distraction needed to gain access to the nearby bio lab.
The odd thing about the protest is that it evolves into battle between two belief circles – the Scooch-a-mout and Hacek. It’s a huge event with thousands of real people and millions of watchers. It appears very much like cosplay, where the costumes are all virtual – a kind of shared hallucination. Strange.
While the distraction is ongoing, the cabal make it into the lab with the intent of disabling the shredda (mulched left overs of the library books). The shredda is stored in the bio lab because it happens to be the same company that performed the library digitization. Little does the cabal know that they are really there to allow Vaz and colleagues to spy the inside of the lab. Vaz secretly doctors the results to make it appear everything is normal inside. The grand plan is foiled when the US military (via Lt. Col. Bob Gu and Col. Alice Gu) intervene on suspicion of a possible terrorist threat.
The book leaves some loose ends and unanswered questions. Rabbit’s identity is never revealed despite the fact that he/it was a very powerful character. Robert is told Lena is still alive, but she never responds to his messages, regardless of evidence that he is a changed man. Despite the national security breach and treachery of Robert (he was responsible for compromising Alice) he and the Elder Cabal seem to suffer no consequences whatsoever.
Overall a good book – the characters have depth (I like the way the author gives us a glimpse into what the characters are thinking as they speak – because sometimes it’s the opposite), the near future setting is excellent, spies, mysterious strangers and military action round it out. I can see why it won the Hugo and Locus awards. It would be interesting to see if Vinge’s vision is equally as good for a distant future setting.
(Amazon) Rainbow’s End