It seemed to me that Rainbows
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
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
followed that pattern, it was going to
be a tremendous book.
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
So when I approached
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
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
Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed in
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
like a giant step backward from the vision he conjured forth in “Fast Times at
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
, 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
… 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.