Sunday, April 08, 2007

Virtual life with real consequences

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, wearable computers, digital infrastructure

The title Rainbows End at first made me wonder if it simply embodied the recent trend toward eliminating apostropes. Then I figured it is a declarative sentence, to which I reply, "Yes, I suppose they do." Later in the book, the author makes the same pair of points, leaving his own reasoning obscure.

Halfway through the fourth chapter, I began to wonder if I'd read this before. I checked prior reviews and found that Chapter 4, titled "Synthetic Serendipity", had appeared in The Year's Best Science Fiction 2004, which I reviewed April 12, 2006.

Vernor Vinge throws ideas at you a bucket full at a time. The core plot is the struggle between a somewhat stereotypical mad medico who wishes to "save" the world—which requires enslaving it—and a global watchdog group, an extension of the Dept. of Homeland Security. This latter agency, still called DHS, wishes to prevent development of a technology called YGMB, for "you gotta believe me," a means of making your dictates simply irresistible.

The environment and setting provide the novel's allure. As near as I can figure, the central protagonist, Robert Gu, having been in high school in 1965—it is implied that was his senior year—is either my same age (60 later this year) or at most 2-3 years younger. At age 75, he places the time frame as 2022, or 2025 at the latest. There are allusions to seminal events "in the teens" that are recent memory to adults, but not to most youngsters, who'd have been too young to remember or not born yet.

Wearable computers have become clothing full of tiny processors and communications nodes linked to special contact lenses, which project images directly on the retina. The environment has become infrastructure, with every item bigger than a ladybug having its own digital tag. Thus, someone on a nature walk can call up a view of the landscape in which every bush, tree, and weed is tagged with botanical information, and taking a second look at any bug or other critter calls up appropriate zoological references.

People build their own world, so a row of suburban bungalows may appear as medieval huts to one, as "McMansions" to another, and hobbit-holes to someone else. People watching anything remotely can appear virtually, to anyone caring to see the virtual viewers. With a landscape full of cameras, you can see in any direction you want, including through the wall that happens to be in front of you (I'd find it hard to avoid walking into that wall, myself, at that point!), or from a treetop or spider burrow. Someone who is "wearing" can call up just about anything imaginable.

Call up how? Not with keystokes or mouse clicks. Your shirt and its sensors collaborate with you to build up a physical vocabulary of gestures and postures, in addition to subvocalized commands. When you've made yourself telepresent in a particular "space", things you say and do are heard and seen by others in that space. To communicate with a smaller audience one employs "sming" or silent messaging.

Highly acclaimed poet Robert Gu, aged 75, has the right genetics to respond almost miraculously to treatments that cure his Alzheimer's dementia and return most of his body to a 17-year-old's. His prostate seems to get stuck in his 50s, though, so he still has to get up a couple times nightly. He also finds that he has lost the ability to create poetry. Oh, he can spin words into rhyme well enough, rhymes that still affect others. But the sharp edge that made him a legend is gone. So is the sharp tongue with which he made himself sincerely hated by all who actually met him, family included.

The plot is complex, with several threads. A central thread is the efforts of the aforementioned medical scientist to keep his research secret. Another is the poet's desire to regain his poet's edge. His granddaughter hopes to help him leapfrog into the mid-21st Century by teaching him to "wear" (the word is never in quotes in the book. You just have to pick it up). He gets good enough to participate in what he thinks will be anti-establishment hijinks, but the plot is ever so much deeper than you can imagine, as he finds himself an unlikely savior of Civilization as We (might) Know It. A fun read.

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