One sweet, sweet day, we will have colonies on Mars and nanotechnology and teleportation and the ability to control robots with our mind and we will have jetpacks (pleasepleaseplease). But until that great future day, we'll just have to make due with self-driving cars, computers you can wear, and the ability to talk to just about anyone on the world through a tiny phone that fits into your pocket.
Lots of science fiction takes place far in the future, where we have faster-than-light speed spaceships and robots with personalities and laser blasters. (Can you tell we're total Star Wars nerds?) But Vernor Vinge's 2006 book Rainbows End shows us a much closer world: it mostly takes place in San Diego, around the year 2025. There are incredible scientific advancements in this book—like self-driving cars and wearable computers and cures for Alzheimer's—but they're the kind of advancements that we're already working towards today. Which means that, when we read the book, we're constantly saying, "Oh, that looks neat!" rather than "The what now?"
Vernor Vinge isn't just some random guy saying, "wouldn't it be fun to have self-driving cars?" He's a mathematician and computer scientist, so he kind of knows his stuff. He's also been writing science fiction since the 1960s; and his 1981 novella True Names was all about the future of the internet. Do you know what we had instead of tablet computers in 1981? Lite Brite. But Vinge knew what was coming.
A lot of Vinge's work has to do with intelligence—computer intelligence, enhanced human intelligence, or some sweet combination of the two. Looked at that way, Rainbows End fits right in since his characters deal with the limitations of their brains through various means—and since one of his characters might be—gasp!—an Artificial Intelligence.
In fact, if you look up Vinge on the interwebs, you might find his name associated with something called "The Singularity." Roughly, that's the idea that, at some point in the future, we'll come to a point where computers and/or people have so much computational (and other) power that we cannot predict what it will be like. Vinge didn't invent that term, but he does write about that situation, in both his fiction and his nonfiction.
So what's interesting about Rainbows End is that it takes place before the Singularity really happens: sure there's self-driving cars and wearable computers, but it's still a world largely like the one we live in—high school, family tension, super-spies.
Even though it only take place a few years in the future, the plot can be a little confusing (hey, that's why your best buddy-bud-bud Shmoop is around) but the big picture is this: famous poet and colossal jerk Robert Gu gets an Alzheimer's cure and now has to deal with his family and technology—and the fact that he's no longer great at poetry. Meanwhile, super-spy Alfred Vaz investigates a possible mind control technique being secretly developed at the biotech labs at the University of California at San Diego—but he's only pretending to investigate since he's the one who is actually behind the mind control. If this were a romantic comedy, these two would meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, when these two paths collide, things blow up.
Rainbows End won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel (bringing his Hugo count up to three for best novel and two for best novella); and there are rumors of a potential sequel—which: pleasepleasepleaseplease. We want more Rainbows End more than we want jetpacks. And that is saying a lot.
There's one whopping big reason to read this book: most of the technology that Vinge describes here is coming… in the near future. So we might as well start thinking about it now.
And we might want to think about how we'll use this technology and how this technology might affect things like family, friendship, and the government. You know: the little things. Because, yes, it would be great to have a cure for Alzheimer's. And we'd love to have self-driving cars.
Although, jeez: if you're worried about your computer getting a virus, imagine what would happen if your self-driving car got a bug. That's what we'd call a computer crash (hey-o!). Or imagine if some terrorist hacked into a biology lab and designed a human virus that gave us Alzheimer's. Or snooped through all of our personal information, all the time.
Ugh. Future tech sounds equal parts awesomesauce and terrifying.
We don't have the answers about the best sort of future is, or how we can avoid the bad parts of this future (although we have many opinions), but reading Rainbows End can give us a head-start in asking the right sorts of questions. Because this novel shows us a future that isn't all jetpacks and silver pants and getting all our nutrition from a pill. It shows us a future that is almost within our grasp—both the perks and the terrors that will soon be part of our day-to-day lives.
SF Encyclopedia: Vernor Vinge
The Science Fiction Encyclopedia is a great place to start, since they list the author's works and have links to other authors and themes. This entry gives a nice summary of Vinge: "while risking the worst of genre sillinesses, [he] remains dangerously acute."
Vernor Vinge at the ISFDB
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database page for Vinge has a useful bibliography of his work.
Science Fiction Inventions from Rainbows End
Technovelgy tracks inventions in various science fiction works.
Big Brother Takes a Controlling Interest in Chips
Here's an article from 2006 about Vinge's take on surveillance and how computers make it easier.
Signs of the Singularity
And here's an essay by Vinge from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Spectrum magazine on the singularity, with multiple notes on possible singularities.
Technology That Outthinks Us: A Partner or a Master?
A discussion of Vinge, the singularity, and posthumanism—in the New York Times.
A Scientist's Art: Computer Fiction
An article from 2001 about Vinge and his interest in the future. (Bonus: he talks about writing a story about a man healing from Alzheimer's.)
The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era
Want to read Vinge's own words on the Singularity? Here's an essay on it.
An interview with Vinge at Reason, where he discusses the singularity and Rainbows End. How does he feel about science fiction? "I think science fiction can have all the power of conventional literature, but with the added potential for providing us with vivid, emotionally grounded insights into the future and into alternative scenarios."
Vernor Vinge Says That When the Singularity Happens, It Will Be "Very Obvious."
A short interview with Vernor Vinge, including discussion of the singularity (of course).
Vernor Vinge Is Optimistic About the Collapse of Civilization
A longer interview with Vinge at Wired magazine; includes an audio interview.
What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?
In this video, Vinge describes his thoughts about what the future holds. Also, he expresses shock over the fact that Wikipedia works, which is pretty cute.
Vernor Vinge, David Brin, and Others Debate The Singularity
If you're tired of hearing Vinge talk about the Singularity, here's a discussion with Vinge and a bunch of other people on the Singularity.
Vernor Vinge on Spimes
If all this Singularity talk seems a little abstract, you can check out this video of Vinge talking about "spimes." (Which are objects that are always networked. Yeah, it makes more sense when Vinge talks about it.)
SF Author Bruce Sterling on Augmented Reality
Did you know there's an Augmented Reality Conference? SF author and guy-interested-in-the-future Bruce Sterling gave the keynote address in 2013 that deals with many of the issues in Rainbows End.
Author Vernor Vinge Predicted Google Glasses
A discussion with Vernor Vinge on future technology.
Man-Machine Merger Arriving Sooner Than You Think
A 2006 discussion with Vinge and Cory Doctorow about how technology impacts human beings.
The Singularity and Schools
In this interview, Vinge talks about something that might interest you: how future tech will affect education.
Rainbows End Cover
Fifty shades of lavender.
Look at that sly smile.
In the future, we'll all be wearing these bad boys.