It seemed to me that Rainbows End was the perfect storm:
For starters, Vernor Vinge was an author who could truly boast that every single novel he’d ever written was better than the one he’d written before: The Witling was better than Grimm’s World; The Peace War was better than The Witling; Marooned in Realtime was better than The Peace War; A Fire Upon the Deep was better than Marooned in Realtime; and A Deepness in the Sky was better than A Fire Upon the Deep. If Rainbows End followed that pattern, it was going to be a tremendous book.
Rainbows End also saw Vinge returning to a fictional universe which had been the setting for two excellent short stories: “Fast Time at Fairmont High” and “Synthetic Serendipity”. An analogy could be drawn, I felt, between this relationship and the relationship between “The Blabber” and A Fire Upon the Deep. Both of these latter stories are set in in Vinge’s Zone of Thoughts universe, and “The Blabber” was the first peek we had into that universe. In that story, Vinge gave us a glimpse — from the edge of the Slow Zone — of what an amazing place the near-Singularity of the Beyond would be like. Frankly, when I first read “The Blabber” I didn’t think Vinge or anyone else could really deliver on that promise. But Vinge did. And A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the most amazing science fiction novels ever written.
“Fast Times at Fairmont High” excited me even more than “The Blabber”. Vinge was working his future history talents at their finest: He forwarded half a dozen different technical fields all at once and then started looking at how that would change us as a society and as individuals. His vision was compelling, startling, dynamic, and utterly believable. If those technologies become prevalent, society is going to look a lot like “Fast Times at Fairmont High” — you can already see the beginning of those trend lines forming in the high schools of today as the technology of today reshapes the contours of daily life. And those trend lines are even clearer today than they were in 2001 when he published the story.
So when I approached Rainbows End I was excited: Even if Vinge did nothing more than expand his previous treatment into a larger, more intricately woven plot it was going to be one of the most exciting science fiction novels I’ve read in the last decade. And if he followed his previous trends, I was fully prepared to be dazzled by his vision of the future
Finally, on a personal level, Rainbows End was being published just as I was tearing through Vinge’s entire corpus work of work: As you’ve seen in my recent reactions, I worked my way through his short stories and then tackled his novels one by one. It seemed as if I was working my way up a triumphant crescendo that would culminate in Vinge’s most recent and most brilliant work.
Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed in this.
To be clear, the book – considered in and of itself – is just fine. It’s a solid near-future techno-thriller. It’s very well executed, with some really interesting twists, and I give it a B+ with a solid recommendation to accompany it.
But I still can’t shake the feeling that, with Rainbows End, Vinge played chicken and he lost. He got into a staring contest… and he blinked. Rainbows End reads like a giant step backward from the vision he conjured forth in “Fast Times at Fairmont High”.
To take one example, in “Fast Times at Fairmont High”, Vinge looked at the ways in which augmented reality would fundamentally change social interaction. In Rainbows End , by contrast, there was essentially nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with a cellphone and text messaging. (The only exception I can think of is when a character virtually pops over to a beach in Indonesia … but once she’s there in virtual form, there’s nothing remarkable about the experience at all. It’s one step up from a webcam, but there’s nothing fundamentally transformative.)
There was, to put it more bluntly, more complexity of world-building in his short story than there was in his novel. And, ultimately, I consider that to be a colossal failure.
Vinge seems to have suffered a failure of imagination. And that’s not a flaw I ever thought I’d see in him.
For additional comments on Rainbows End, which include SPOILERS, click here.
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