How to end a rainbow

November 2007 ยท 3 minute read

I’ve just recently finished reading one of the best speculative/cyberpunk science fiction book that’s come out in the past few years, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. This one kinda surprised me since it’s a near future (~2020s) speculation of where technology and culture are heading, and I’ve usually been more interested in the “Grand Idea” SF (e.g. Bear’s awesome Eon) which either deal with the deep future or its sudden arrival. This book is also a different move for Vinge since he usually writes the “Grand Idea” (read Fire upon the Deep or Deepness in the Sky to see what I mean) and he’s been particularly interested in the Technological Singularity.

For those of you unfamiliar with the singularity (and can’t be bothered to read the wiki article) I’ll indulge in a quick digression: the technological singularity is the idea that with ever advancing computer technology, eventually an intelligence of super-human capacity will be created. After that event we have no way of even speculating what will happen since that intelligence will presumably give rise to even greater intelligences which will do the same and so on, thus the term singularity - the point at which it all breaks down (i.e. our ability to speculate what would/could happen).

Now, the idea of the singularity rests on a few shaky presuppositions such as the myth of progress and and the idea that a super-human intelligence would automatically lead to a super-super-human intelligence (and so on ad infinitem). Regardless it’s fun to think about and I should come back to it in a future post but for now let us return to Rainbows…

All good science fiction is anchored in the present. It takes a current idea, technology, scientific theory, or cultural trend and analyzes it in a fantastical setting. SF that fails in this regard ultimately winds up boring fantasy trash (see pretty much any book with “Star Wars” attached to it to see what I mean (note that I’m not talking about “Star Wars” proper {i.e. the original three movies} which is our present day myth and an absolute good)). Thankfully Vinge’s End sidesteps this trap. The present day meme it focuses on is crowdsourcing. In the acknowledgment Vinge dedicates his book “to the Internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives–Wikipedia, Google, eBay, and the others of their kind…”

The story of Rainbows End is about some kind of mind controlling super-weapon and is somewhat forgettable and definitely less important than the characters who are also rather boring and forgettable. The true focus and interest in this book is the ways in which the characters interact with and use technology. The rest just serves as a substrate on which the theme of collaborative technologies is explored.

There’s some pretty neat technology in this book that is actually somewhat believable in 20 years: wearable computers, contact displays, and the merging of the virtual with the physical (the contacts display virtual world overlays on the real world). These are all fairly interesting but what really get fascinating is the collaborative stuff.

Since this has already grown overlong, I’ll break this out into a two part post. Check back in the next few days for part II.