Study Guide

Rainbows End Analysis

By Vernor Vinge

  • Tone


    Omniscient Neutral

    Whether the POV takes that bird's-eye omniscient view or gives us the story filtered through some character's eyes, Vinge gives a pretty neutral account of things. For instance, the discovery of a potentially deadly virus doesn't get told in either a super nervous or a super triumphant way.

    There were still good people at CDD. They were the same specialists who had saved the world in 2017. They quickly resolved the July 23 issue. Public Relations could now spin a more or less accurate statement… (Prologue.5)

    Now, when we read about Public Relations putting "spin" on a story and giving a "more or less accurate" account, we might react in a certain way: we don't much like it. We react negatively when government agencies play a little fast-and-loose with the facts, especially when we're talking about a potentially deadly virus.

    But Vinge's narrator doesn't call that PR department liars or get angry. The narrator seems pretty even-handed here; reminding us that the CDD helped prevent a worldwide catastrophe in 2017, and simply stating that the PR department is doing its job of making the CDD look fine.

  • Genre

    Adventure, Science Fiction

    Science Fiction

    Yes, this is science fiction, although we sometimes wish it were science fact: those sm's would come in super-handy. Rainbows End spends a lot of time on the nifty gadgets and toys of the future, but it's not only about that: whenever Vinge imagines some new technological marvel (say, a cure for Alzheimer's), he also imagines how it would change society. For instance, all the medical technology means a lot of old people are still hanging around.


    If this book were just about how Robert is sad he can't write poetry anymore and all the family drama that comes from that, we would probably classify it as a "science fiction drama." But since it's about a super-spy's attempt to take over the world using mind control, we're going to classify it as an adventure. To be more precise: it's a spy/espionage adventure. Cue the Indiana Jones theme song.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Rainbows End is the name of the retirement community where Lena Gu and Xiu Xiang live. As Robert notices, there's a huge typo in that name. The developers probably meant to call the retirement community "Rainbow's End"—note the apostrophe. That would mean something like, "Oh, what a wonderful peaceful place we've discovered here at the end of the rainbow." Alternately, they might find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or at least some Lucky Charms.

    But without the apostrophe, what it says is more like, "Rainbows, like all good things, eventually stop." Now, would you want to live in a retirement community called "Rainbows stop eventually"? That makes it sound, well, like a place where people go to die. As we hear about Robert, "He'd never been able to decide if that spelling was the work of an everyday illiterate or someone who really understood the place" (14.100).

    So… why name the book that? From Robert's perspective, maybe the world looks at first like everything good is or has ended: his ex-wife is dead (and for all his meanness to her, maybe he did have some affection for her); his poetry is gone; heck, even the books he loved are gone, even in the UCSD library. So "Rainbows End" kind of fits for Robert's first experience of this world—everything he loved is gone.

    But that's not how the book ends. By the end of the book, Robert has found pleasure in his new math/science work; he's learned that his ex-wife is alive (and he gets a chance to make it up to her and to the rest of his family); and, yeah, the library has no books, but it's still a cool place to be.

    So maybe we should read "Rainbows End" as meaning something like, "rainbows end, but then other rainbows start—it's not the end of the world."

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Most of the epilogue of Rainbows End really feels like a sequence at the end of a movie where we get a line or two about what happened to the characters: Bob and Alice are still in the military, Miri and Juan are becoming friendly again, Lena still isn't talking to Robert, and Robert is still enjoying his newfound talent for math/science.

    And then it goes on some more: Winston Blount has a low-level job at the university, Carlos Rivera got cured of his JITT seizures, and the library is curiously split between the different belief circles.

    We don't know what happens to Vaz, Braun, and Mitsuri, but we do hear that there are rumors of scandal (Epilogue.1). Unfortunately for us, those rumors don't turn into actual news.

    In fact, most of the epilogue seems devoted to how the library is doing, which is that (a) it's still standing but (b) there are a lot of changes going on—and some of them are interesting to Robert.

    Our interpretation of the title (check out our analysis in action over at "What's Up With the Title?") goes into this more, but the epilogue seems to say that, when something ends, something else begins. Which sounds like the sort of happy-dippy thing a motivational poster says. But we can't deny the fact that Robert once fought very hard to save the physical books and now he thinks the virtual books are really cool.

    Also, at the epilogue, Carlos and Robert discuss whether Rabbit might still be alive somewhere and might still fulfill his promises. Which means that Robert might be able to have it all: the poetry, the math, and the not-being-a-total-jerk. So: some rainbows end—and maybe other rainbows start.

    Also, does Robert's last line—"What if I can have it all?" (Epilogue.68)—sound like sequel bait to anyone else?

  • Setting

    San Diego (and Virtual Space) of the Future

    We are Living in a Material World (sort of)

    Physically, most of the story takes place in or around San Diego, especially at the University of California, and most especially at the Geisel Library.

    The world of the future isn't totally different—there are lots of similarities with our world. There are cars—but they are self-driving. There are school buildings—that are computerized and built to withstand earthquakes (4.112). There's some postal service called UP/Express (an offshoot of UPS?)—that delivers items by "launcher" and something that sounds a lot like a drone (4.17).

    One big change that Robert notes is that no one has permanently-printed physical books anymore. (We cover that in "Symbols," so mosey on over.)

    Also, Chicago has been destroyed (13.1). No more deep dish pizza for you; sorry. Like we said, there are a bunch of changes to this world.

    Avatar (No, Not The Blue Tiger-People)

    But a lot of the action doesn't just go on at the library or at home, but on the internet of the future. Except maybe we should call it something like an extra-net, because so much of the digital world is around these characters at all times. The biggest case of this is the belief circles and their virtual reality overlays.

    When Robert is driving (in a self-driving car), he can access any of these overlays and change what his environment looks like (15.202). Even Pyramid Hill amusement park is only partly physical; the other part is all virtual (4.33).

    Of course, because this is all new technology, Robert isn't super-happy about it. So when Robert is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future, he tries to drive out into the natural world, beyond any computers or internet. Unfortunately for him, the internet is everywhere:

    And finally he had reached the beginning of nature. A little voice spoke in his ear, announcing that he was leaving the tagged section of the park. Beyond this point, only "low-rate emergency wireless" was guaranteed. Robert walked on, across the unlabeled wilderness. So this is the closest thing to being alone these days. (8.16)

    As Robert learns, being alone and away from the network is not an easy thing to find in the future. Which brings us to—

    Social Changes (and Social Status Quos)

    Technology changes many things, including the social world.

    Here's an incredibly tiny example of how technology affects society: Just imagine you're wearing contact lenses that connect to the internet. Now you bump into someone in the street and you've forgotten their name. Well, you can just use the facial recognition of your contacts to bring up their Facebook page. Voila—now you not only know their name, but you know everything else they put up about themselves.

    In the future setting of Rainbows End, we hear how old people run the country (8.25); but we also hear how hard it is for everyone to keep up: "My brother is all unemployed and depressed, and he's only twenty. It's hard to keep up" (10.6).

    There may be big corporations like we're used to… sort of. When Robert gets hired by a company because of his synchronization hack, we get this hilarious sentence:

    In a way it was a traditional firm. It was old (five years old), and it had three full-time employees. (35.30)

    We guess the implication is that a lot of smaller firms use mostly temporary and contract/affiliance work instead of full-time employees.

    And yet, even if the employment landscape has changed a lot, we get to hear a lot about how things haven't changed in certain social groups. So, sure, the kids play a weird game called Egan soccer, but they're still playing a game together. Or even if there's a campus protest at the Geisel Library over digitizing the books—and even if some of those protesting are actually only virtually present—let's recognize the similarity: people still protest at colleges in 2025, just as they did when Robert was a teacher and student.

    This mix of new changes in the future and old similarities makes it easier for us to read this book. Because we can read something new and maybe have trouble understanding it—what's a Librareome Project? What's Egan soccer? What's an affiliance?—but because Vinge situates a lot of these changes in a world that we might recognize, it's easier for us to pick up on what the new stuff is.

    Or possibly: by using lots of present-day material, Vinge makes the futuristic stuff stand out more. What do you think?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Tree Line

    On the sentence level, the book is not that hard: "The door opened. Alice was looking at him, a bit wide-eyed" (16.122). Simple, right? There's a noun, then there's a verb. Sometimes, if you're lucky, there's a direct or indirect object.

    Then, sometimes, it gets a little tricky because we read about new nouns, like "the Librareome Project" and "wearables" and "silent messaging." Or "mech" and "Scooch-a-mouti" and "answerboard." Or—well, you get the idea: Vinge describes the future, so there's lots of new stuff. And it can be a little hard to keep up. Now you know how old man Robert Gu feels!

    Then, on top of that, it can get a little confusing because there are several interweaving plots… and lots of characters have secrets from each other. So if we see a scene with Robert and Miri but we mostly get it from Robert's POV, then we might never know what devious thought Miri is thinking. And everyone in this novel is thinking devious thoughts pretty much 24/7.

  • Writing Style

    POV: Neutralish

    We say "neutralish" rather than "neutral" for two reasons: (1) it's more fun to say; and (2) sometimes when we see something through a character's POV, we get that character's tone. For instance, when Miri comes to help Robert in the GenGen labs, she lets slip that lots of people (Juan, Miri, Xiu Xiang) are working secretly to help Robert; and then we hear this:

    So many friends, doing so much to save an incompetent old fool and his fellow fools. (27.112)

    Now, is that the narrator calling Robert an "incompetent old fool"? Is that the narrator calling all those people "friends"? We're getting this moment from Robert's POV—he's the one who is surprised by all the people secretly helping him. So it seems that this tone is also Robert's—he's the one who is starting to appreciate his friends and realizing what a fool he's been.

    Neutralish Moral Ambiguity

    If you've read many of the character analyses, you've probably noticed that there are a couple of times where we scratched our heads and asked, "Well, what do you think? Is Alfred Vaz a terrible monster for wanting to mind control the world into peace? Is Bob a terrible monster for using weapons to stop other people from using weapons? How guilty should Robert feel about betraying his daughter-in-law in order to get his poetry back? Is Lena wrong to cut Robert out when everyone says he's changed? Is… "

    You get the idea.

    We ask you what you think because you might have some definite opinion about those questions… and because Rainbows End seems pretty ambiguous. If we never got a Vaz POV section, we'd just call him the villain and move on. But he just wants to help people (by controlling people's minds)—which puts him pretty close to some characters that we wouldn't want to call villains, like Miri (who just wants to help people by manipulating them) and Bob (who wants to save the world by blowing up small parts of it).

    In many ways, the neutralish tone of the book works well with the character's moral ambiguity.

    In both cases, the book sets up these situations and then asks you, "Well, what do you think about it?"

    Style: Informative (but not Hand Hold-y)

    Here's a question that we won't ask on our quiz: What's an "HEIR laser"?

    The first time we hear about HEIR lasers, in Chapter 29, we hear that they are some of the weapons available to Bob and the other military forces. So we know that they are military equipment—and we also know that they are lasers (29.103).

    Now, if you're dying to know what "HEIR" stands for, you have to read on to Chapter 32, where we finally hear about a "High Energy Infra-Red laser" that blasted the lab (32.54). And if you read about "High Energy Infra-Red" lasers and forgot that we earlier heard about "HEIR lasers," then you have to wait a few paragraphs to hear about "HEIR" again (32.58).

    So by that point, we finally know what HEIR lasers are. Unfortunately, there are no blueprints on how to build our own. Dang.

    That's an example of how Rainbows End is informative but not hand hold-y. Vinge's narrator lays out a lot of information for us. We hear about what it's like when a certificate authority collapses (28.1-4); we hear about what the book shredding/digitization looks like to Robert (like a tree-shredder, 12.38-45). And yet, the narrator doesn't walk us through this complex world and tell us what's what.

    Check out Juan's bike. When we first see Juan, we hear how the Radners helped him avoid a recall on his bike:

    That had left him with a great martial-arts weapon—and a bike that was almost impossible to unfold. (4.18)

    Then when Miri sees him, she notices that Juan "had a shiny new bike, but he couldn't seem to get it unfolded" (13.27). Well, we know why, but the narrator doesn't make the connection for us—we have to make it ourselves. Oh, and there's one last mention of the bike, eighteen chapters (!) after it's first mentioned. When they almost get caught by Alfred, Juan uses his bike to attack Alfred:

    The wheels spun up with all the power from the regen brakes, and the bike exploded across the room, smashing into the stranger and the equipment behind him. (22.60)

    So in Chapter 4 we hear that it's a useless bike but a great weapon; and all the way in Chapter 22 we finally get to see it in martial arts action. But again, nowhere does the narrator remind us of these facts. It's almost like Vinge expects us to remember stuff and put stuff together without help.

  • Books

    Books, books and more books: if we had as many books as Rainbows End we'd be classified as a hoarder (and we'd be so happy, because: books!). But the symbolism behind books in this novel is a little trickier than books = hoarder or books = so much happiness.

    In Rainbows End books mean different things to different characters, but characters also shift (a little) their ideas about books. Which means it might be hard to finish the sentence, "In Rainbows End, books are a symbol of…"

    For instance—

    Robert + Books = The Happy Past

    At the beginning of the book, we have a clear division between Miri and Robert Gu. If you don't have books in your house, Robert will be able to tell that this is not his house (good job, Rob)—"Not a book in sight; this was no place he had ever lived" (3.10)—and will call you "effectively illiterate" (3.61).

    For Robert, "book" means a physical object; throughout Rainbows End, Robert makes the distinction between "real books" (7.14) and those fake virtual books. He even makes the distinction between the physical, printed books he used to have and the new-fangled "just-in-time fake" books (16.67).

    That interest in old books and his belief that reading books through the computer is "a tedious desecration" (3.61) helps us figure out why Robert cares about books and what they symbolize for him. But just to push us over the edge into a thesis, here's this:

    "I don't care if we're talking high treason!" said Robert. If I can get back my song. ... "I mean, you know what a lover of books I am." (15.67)

    We can see a lot in that distance between what he thinks ("If I can get back my song") and what he says he is ("a lover of books"). While Robert talks about loving books, what he really loves is the old way of doing things; for him, real physical books are a reminder of a time when he had his poetic skill and was at the top of his game.

    In fact, when Sharif first offers to guide him around the Geisel Library, Robert thinks that it would be like the "old days" (11.22). We're not saying that he doesn't love books. But he seems stuck considering physical books as the only real books because they symbolize a time before he lost his identity as a poet.

    Miri + Books = The Miserable Past

    On the other end of the spectrum, we have Miri, who grew up in a digital world. When she talks about those physical books that Robert loves, she doesn't call them "real"—she calls them "old" (7.23).

    In one of our favorite moments, when talking to Sharif, she says that Robert misses the way books used to be: "those clunky things you have to carry around" (10.72). How much does she sound like an ad for an e-reader right there? But honestly, she's got a point: books are heavy.

    Robert (Part 2) + Books = Ebooks Aren't the Devil

    Now, by the end of the book, Robert seems to have moved over to something like the Miri/Juan position. He probably still wouldn't like a project that involved shredding books, but he seems to like the virtual world of books a little more. At the end, when he visits the Geisel Library one last time, he watches a student interact with a "book" where the book is made up partly of virtual info and a physical robot:

    Somewhere on a high protocol layer, all this involved books and the contents of books. At the physical layer it was even... more... fascinating. (Epilogue.25)

    So from thinking that virtual books were "a tedious desecration" (3.61) (the worst type of desecration there is), Robert has come to realize that virtual books are just as real as physical books. Nowhere in that quote does he talk about real vs. fake books.

    Now he's interested in the physical technology of robots and computers that make this sort of book possible. So if old books symbolized the way things used to be, these new digital technologies symbolize the way they are—and Robert is finally changing to adapt.

  • The Geisel Library

    There's heavy overlap between "books" and the Geisel Library. After all, the Geisel Library is ground zero for a fight over whether books should remain old (like Robert wants, at first) or should get new "technology" (as Robert comes to enjoy at the end). While the Geisel Library might fit nicely as a symbol for the fight between old and new in this book, we want to point out that it already was a symbol for that when it was built.

    When Robert first comes back to the UCSD campus, he notes that the Geisel Library is "Unchanged after all the years!" and has "nothing virtual about it" (11.42). So it's clearly a symbol for the old way of things?

    But Robert remembers when it was built and everyone complained that it was too futuristic:

    "We've been hijacked by space cadets." In fact, it did look like something brought down from outer space: the six aboveground stories formed a huge octahedron, touching ground on one vertex and clasped by fifty-foot pillars. (11.49)

    We don't know about you, but when we read about a huge octahedron touching the ground on one vertex, we don't think, "Oh, that's so nice and traditional." So even while Robert is thinking that the library is unchanged, we soon get a reminder that the library itself was a huge change to the campus.

    In that way, the Geisel Library isn't just a symbol for tradition; it's a symbol for how new things become traditional if they only stay around long enough. Like cars. Or computers. Or the dang wheel.

    Geisel is a Living, Changing Library

    Which brings us to the final image that Robert has of the outside of the Geisel Library. Robert's first view of the library is marked as traditional: the library is "still" there; it's the oldest building on campus (Epilogue.13-4). After the library riot nearly destroyed parts of the library, the administration didn't rebuild it the way it was (which would be an attempt to recapture the past); and they didn't destroy it and build a new building (which would be a way to throw out the past). Instead, they kept the library the way it was, post-riot, and added some new things on to it (Epilogue.17).

    Robert at the beginning of the book would probably scoff at this solution of keeping the old and adding some new bits. But Robert at the end looks at this library that combines old and new and thinks, "this was real. This building lived" (Epilogue.18).

    So, we would argue that the Geisel Library is a symbol of mixing old and new—it combines the themes of old age, change, and technology. By the end of the book, Robert accepts that being alive means changing.

  • Juan and Robert's Final Project

    After reading about books and the Geisel Library—and how both could be read as symbols of the old-vs-new theme and Robert's change from oldster-at-heart to budding techie—you might be rolling your eyes and thinking, "Is Juan and Robert's final project for Chumlig's class also a symbol of the old-vs.-new and how Robert changes? Yawn."

    If you guessed that, give yourself a gold star… because you're not wrong. But there's another part to it, too: it's about community and collaboration.

    The Final Project: Ch-ch-ch-changes

    First, let's get it out of the way: the final project totally does symbolize (or chart) Robert's change. He starts out thinking of himself as a poet and he ends up thinking of himself as a techie/programmer.

    The project also can be used to measure Juan's growth from kid who thinks he's a loser and can't write to kid with some pride and who can write. So at the end, when Winston comes to congratulate him, Robert has to confess that Juan did the lyrics:

    "We collaborated all through the semester, but on this I let him go, just critiqued the final effort." (34.8)

    Even Winston Blount recognizes that this shows "Lots of things have changed" (34.12).

    The Final Project: Synchronization as Community

    Second, the Gu/Orozco final project symbolizes community and collaboration. Now, it's not the only time people have to collaborate in this book; in fact, most things that get done in Rainbows End get done by teams of people—Alfred's team of spies; the Elder Cabal; the Miri Gang; the belief circles; etc.

    But in its way, the Gu/Orozco project might be one of the most layered examples of collaboration and community-building:

    • Juan and Robert collaborate together;
    • Juan and Robert collaborate with distant music students;
    • An orchestra and a chorus have to work together in Boston and in Punta Arenas, Chile;
    • All four music groups—two choruses and two orchestras—have to play together;
    • Juan and Robert have to synch up that music using software, which means—
    • The project brings together art (music), literature (poetry), and technology (synchronization algorithm).

    In a way, the final project of synchronization is a reminder of one of Juan and Robert's first projects: when they played "synch monster" with a bunch of Chilean kids just passing through (14.3-48). And, as almost everything is, it's a symbol of how much Robert has grown: from a solitary angry old man to a collaborative less-angry less-old man.

    But the issues raised by this symbol are bigger than just Robert, and serve to remind us of how collaboration and community are super important to getting things done.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    The narrator of Rainbows End is omniscient, but sometimes takes a "limited omniscient" view. That is, the narrator can swoop into any character's mind in a scene or even tell part of the story from a bird's-eye view. But sometimes, the narrator takes up a position over the shoulder of a particular person for a particular scene. When that happens, we only see/know what that character knows. That limits our view, but it also probably brings us closer to what that particular character is going through.

    Let's look at some examples.

    The Omniscient, Bird's Eye View

    At the beginning of Chapter 28, when Alfred Vaz and his colleagues have cancelled Credit Suisse in an attempt to destroy Rabbit, the narrator gives us a bird's-eye view summary of what happens:

    The failures spread as timeouts on certificates from intermediate CAs and—where time-critical trust was involved—as direct notifications. In Europe, airplanes and trains came smoothly to a stop, without a single accident or fatality. A billion failures were noted, and emergency services moved—with varying success—into action. (28.3)

    That's just one paragraph of a long section detailing what happens when a "certificate authority" (CA) stops working. None of our main characters is really watching this happen, so we're not getting the info through them. In fact, no one person anywhere is watching those "billion failures." So this bird's-eye, non-character omniscient is great for setting the scene or telling us about the exciting world of the 2020s.

    Free Indirect Discourse: Looking Over Characters' Shoulders

    Check out Chapter 6, when Robert recites some poetry to Chumlig's composition class. In the first section, we see the composition class from Robert's POV, so we get to hear about: how the old folks there are losers—but not Robert, of course (6.3)—and how the young folks have no talent, just a lot of "invisible nonsense" (6.8, 11).

    This is Robert in high jerk mode, so we probably don't agree with him, but at least we see how he sees the world. That's one use of the limited omniscient view: it puts us closer to the characters (even when they're being jerkbags).

    Then we see the same class from Juan's POV as Robert goes up to read his poem. Robert may have thought Juan wasn't talented, and—surprise—Juan agrees, thinking that he's no good.

    What is surprising to us is that through Juan's POV, we see that Juan really likes Robert's poetry. So Robert might look at this kid and see someone who doesn't know how to read, but we know that Juan really does appreciate the poetry (6.35). So here's a use for what is called "free indirect discourse": when we see the same scene through multiple POVs, we can see how some characters don't really know what's going on.

    And there's at least one other use for limiting the omniscient view, which is to increase suspense. For instance, when Alfred Vaz tries to stop Miri and Juan from going into the lab in Chapter 22, we see the end of the attack from Miri's POV and we hear more about what she feels.

    So we get told about "a numbing tingle" on her side, but we don't hear what happens to Juan (22.63). All we get from Miri's POV (since she fell into the tunnels) is that Juan yells for her to run and then she hears "a meaty crunching sound" (22.65), which: yuck. So Miri—and we—don't know if Alfred killed Juan or knocked him out or what. Because the scene is limited to her POV, we're left with some mystery and suspense.