Rainbows End - Book Review



Imagine being thrown headlong into a brand new world. A world with its unique languages and modes of communication; a totally different way of learning (or unlearning!) everyday things; where YOU are over hundred years old -- not in terms of your biological age , but the age that you were born into.
Vernor Vinge's highly acclaimed novel "Rainbows End" (NO apostrophe, as the book says) takes us into a seemingly magical world into a not-so-distant future. Robert Gu, an erstwhile poet, gets a new lease on life after a radical treatment for Alzheimer's changes his physiology. De-aged and rejuvenated, he is "reborn" into a future where books are a troublesome luxury and huge conglomerates vie for the supremacy over thoughts of people.

Helpless against the onslaught of technology that-was-invented-while-he-slept, Robert tries to fit in with the family of his son, Bob. Estranged prior to Robert's resurrection (subtle metaphor here), Bob and his wife play formal hosts to Robert, till he is capable of living on his own. In an attempt to learn the ways of this new world, Robert enlists in the local high school class for repurposed seniors and juvenile underachievers. There, he meets several of the brightest minds of his time, who have been reduced to being reprogrammed because technology overtook them faster than they could adapt. Vinge makes a telling observation about the 'just-get-it-done' philosophy that seems to be the cornerstone of the consumerist world today. Little thought is given to the basic axioms, and in the end, it is the 'cool factor' that matters. Hence, it is not sufficient that you know your letters, if you cannot use the 'wearables' and 'Instant Message' with them, you have to be repurposed to fit into the society.

Much of the cool inventions look-and-feel cool -- not because they are from the future (its 2025 in the Gu-World) -- but because they seem perfectly plausible given the current rate of technology explosion. The jump from our dear old PCs to the very latest 'handhelds' to the contact-glass-wearables with their own Operating System (aptly termed Epiphany) does not strike us as a fools errand. In his own style, Vinge comments on the influence of technology over our senses, minds and lastly, over all rational thought. We see this world not only through the eyes of Robert Gu, but also as ourselves when we would be 'seniors' by 2025. It is to Vinge's credit that he does not go overboard with the technology. New inventions are described (for the benefit of Robert, as much for the reader) as they are introduced in the plot.

Vinge's futuristic world does give the user the feeling of falling-through-the-rabbit-hole, and the most important character in the book (IMHO) is known simply as the 'Rabbit'. An accomplished hacker of both systems and virtual avatars, he runs through the landscape as if he is the master and the world is but his dream (more subtle philosophy here!!). The Rabbit is the scourge of all intelligence systems in the world, and is recruited by a rogue RAW agent Alfred Vaz to destroy the traces of his illegal research carried out in a lab in San Diego. The Rabbit, for his part, recruits the unwitting Robert Gu to carry out his task in the guise of a student from UCSD, who intends to write a thesis about Robert Gu's work. In return, he promises Robert that he would help him 'find his words' (another Vinge masterpiece about the growing emphasis over technology and process in arts, over actual content). The paths of various the characters intertwine and cross each other, till they all come together for a (literally) grand finale involving thousands of 'belief-circle' members, the Gu family (most notably, Miri Gu, the granddaughter whose IQ seems to be way above the normal), the Rabbit, and Alfred Vaz himself.

In more ways then one, the story is a journey. A journey of a man born into a totally unfamiliar world. A journey of a 'bastard prick' who must learn to overcome his elitist biases and trust his underachieving partners in order to find himself. A journey of an estranged son who must walk that extra step to meet his helpless father. A journey of a loving granddaughter who must find a way to her gradfather's heart (with a secret agenda I will not describe here). But most of all, it is the journey of an excited reader who has a chance to live in Vinge's futuristic technopia. For one can truly say "There and back again"!!
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