Robert leaned forward to get a close view of the paper. It didn't glow; it didn't even have the glassy appearance of a computer display. It was just plain, high-quality paper. Reed pointed at the outline items. "Now press the menu option that corresponds to your favorite system."
Robert shrugged. Over the years, the Department had upgraded through a number of systems, but—he pressed his finger to the line of text that said 'WinME'. There was no pause, none of the bootup delays he recalled. But suddenly a familiar and annoying musical jingle was in the air. It seemed to come from all around, not from the piece of paper. Now the page was full of color and icons. Robert was filled with nostalgia, remembering many frustrating hours spent in front of glowing computer screens. (3.26-7)
First, let's marvel at the wonderful technology of the future: Robert's computer is a piece of paper—lighter and more powerful than the tablets we have today. Want want want. Second, we love that Robert uses this new computer to run a very old program; and that when he runs it, he feels nostalgia for something that he hated in the past. Is this the first sign of his change to being a techie?
Robert sat down beside Miri. "You know," he said, more to probe reactions than anything else. "This all seems a bit primitive to me. Where are the robot servants—or even the little automatic hands to put the TV dinners in the 'wave and take them out?" (3.70)
Call this the "where's my jetpack?" reaction to being in the future. Robert grew up in a time where they thought the future was going to be all robots and lots of hardware. But the future he wakes up in has lots of software and virtual changes. It's not always easy to guess what future tech will look like.
Blount's eyes narrowed. "I made it a point never to wear. I thought wearing was a demeaning fad." He shrugged. "I was wrong. I paid a heavy price for that. But things have changed." (5.23)
Speaking of people who get the future wrong—hello, Dean Blount! Blount is a good reminder that the future might be full of awesome toys, but not everyone is going to be happy there. For Blount, wearable computers were "a demeaning fad" and now that they've become the normal thing to do, he's been left behind. And while he seems open to change here, we know there are going to be lots of people who aren't. (See "Old Age." Also, see Our Grandparents, who have to print out every email before they read it.)
His foot kicked something metallic. A spent round? No. The gray lump had a triple antenna sticking out of the top. He tossed it into the bushes. He was not beyond the web even here. He pulled out his magic foolscap, surfed the local area. The picture showed the ground around him, from some kind of camera built into the paper; little signs floated above every weed—Ambrosia dumosa-this and Encelia farinosa-that. Ads for the park's gift shop scrolled across the top of the page. (8.11)
Pop-up ads are very annoying. So, imagine what it will be like in the future when you are always connected to the internet. You'll get pop-up ads everywhere! (Maybe.) This is what Robert discovers when he tries to get away from the internet. On the other hand, it seems super useful for your computer to give you info about the world around you.
Near the top of the hill, a Lesser Scooch-a-mout roared into the sky. That sound was not watts from some synthesizer. The departing Scooch-a-mout was how her view imaged the Park's high ride. The ride capsule blasted from deep in the hill, hit four gees before it coasted into the sky, giving its passengers almost a minute of zero-gee before touching down in the Park Annex. It was the most spectacular ride in Southern California. (13.9)
There's enough here to write a paper on. A) With all the virtual tech, people still go on amusement park rides. B) But because the park also is involved in virtual game playing, they make their park rides look like something that would fit in the world. So, when Miri is in Scooch-a-mout view, she sees a roaring Scooch-a-mout. In Cretaceous Returns, that ride sounds like thunder instead (4.34). So we can see how the virtual world deals with the non-virtual world here.
"Well, there's silent messaging. The bitrate is so low, it works when nothing else does."
"Yes! I've read about sming. It's like the old instant messaging, except no one can see you're communicating." (14.65-66)
"No one can see you're communicating." Let's let that sink in for a moment. Because while the old folks are pretty obvious when they type out SMs to each other, the young folk seem to do it very quickly and without any sign. Which means that they can almost telepathically communicate with anyone they want to. Now, imagine it from the other perspective: what if you were in a group of friends and you couldn't be sure whether or not they were gossiping about you—while you're right there?
Robert Gu—and perhaps every student—has dreamed of shortcuts. Learn Russian or Latin or Chinese or Spanish, overnight and painlessly! But be careful what you wish for.... He read the sections on side effects: Learning a language, or a career specialty, changes a person. Cram in such skills willy-nilly and you distort the underlying personality. (15.198)
Robert Gu is learning about JITT here, which is another example of technology's dark side: Sure, JITT can teach you some new skill or field. And yes, we love the idea in theory. But they haven't quite got all the kinks worked out, as we see with Carlos Rivera and Alice Gu. We like the idea of learning a language quickly; we're not crazy about the idea of being brain-damaged ever after. (Or, in Carlos's case, until medical science comes up with a cure.)
First, he laid down a consensus for the robots' appearance. There were queeps and chirps, spitting and shooting in all directions. In reality, these were his 400 mobile manipulators—known as "tweezer bots" in the business. They were barely fast enough to keep up with the humans. But he also had mapped megamunches and xoroshows and salsipueds—these onto his cleaner bots and sample carriers. Behind them lurked the two largest mechs in Huynh's lab, combination forklifts and heavy equipment installers; for now, they were tricked out as gray-masted blue ionipods. (20.188)
One of our favorite words when discussing virtual reality in this book is "consensus": just because you give your robots a certain look in the digital world, doesn't mean that other people are going to see them as such. Besides all the technology, what you need is for the "Community" to agree with you on what they see. Or even better, have the community help out.
There were glimpses of Robert's recent passage. That was enough to guide them downstairs. But now there were places where even wireless failed, and Juan and Miri could talk only to each other.
"It's like a haunted house." Juan's voice was hushed. His hand reached out and grasped hers; she didn't shake him loose. She needed him to keep cool. Certainly losing all connectivity in the middle of an office building was an eerie thing. (22.22-3)
At the end of the library riot, there's a bit network failure. So if you're interested in how technology breaks down and how people cope, you can check that out. But we wanted to put some focus on this little moment, when Juan and Miri are following Robert into a digital deadzone. This is what Robert wanted and failed to get in quote #4. For young peeps like Juan and Miri, though, this deadzone isn't fun—it's a little spooky.
"The British Museum and Library, as digitized and databased by the Chinese Informagical Coalition. The haptics and artifact data are lo-res, to make it all fit on one data card. But the library section is twenty times as big as what Max Huertas sucked out of UCSD. Leaving aside things that never got into a library, that's essentially the record of humanity up through 2000. The whole pre-modern world."
Robert hefted the plastic card. "It doesn't seem like very much." (34.63-4)
If you've ever spent all day writing a paper and then looked at how small the file size is then you'll know this weird feeling: how you can fit so much work into such a tiny technological space. Thanks to digitization and miniaturization, Tommie Parker can give the entire British Library and Museum to Robert Gu—on a little memory card.
The half-time contained a thirty-second advert for honeyed nougats. Within the hour, several free-lance marketing analysts reported a spike-surge of nougat sales, beginning three minutes after the advert. That single advertisement had repaid its sponsor one hundred times over. Such was the stuff of dreams—at least for those unwholesomely fixated on the marketing arts. (Prologue.13)
This is the little bit of manipulation that kicks off the whole spy plot: an advertisement that works a little too well. But after all, this is what ads are all about—getting people to do something that you want them to do. Only, thanks to technology, this sort of manipulation can become virtually mind control.
The rabbit touched its nose. "I will be the soul of discretion. I always know much more than I reveal. But you three really should improve your performances. Mr. So-German is just an out-of-date stereotype. And you, senora, the work of impressionist art reveals nothing and everything. Who might have a special interest in the San Diego bio labs? Who indeed? And as for you—" Rabbit looked at Vaz. "That's a fine Colombian accent you're hiding." (1.41)
Manipulation is very closely related to "Language and Communication." Only when you're manipulating someone, you're trying to communicate something not quite true (or not quite the whole truth). So when Braun, Mitsuri, and Vaz meet Rabbit, they leave some clues so that Rabbit mistakes them for South American ex-drug lords. But it's still pretty funny that Rabbit accuses Braun of being stereotypically German, when, in fact, Braun was just being himself (1.51). In this case, it seems like Rabbit is like one of those guys who so mistrusts other people that he'll think you're lying even when you're telling the whole truth.
"Anything you do in this class will be a favor for the others here. I hope you'll stay, help them. Rework your poem with some student's visuals. They can learn from you—and you can learn the skills that will make the world a more comfortable place for you."
Robert gave her a little smile. There would always be cretins like Louise Chumlig. (6.46-7)
As we've learned in Chapter 4, Louise Chumlig is more than she appears. We've already seen that she's working with Rabbit, who has particular interest in Robert (4.131). So when Louise tells Juan that he should collaborate with someone who is good with words (6.12); and then tells Robert that he would be doing the students a favor by staying—well, it seems like she's very subtly manipulating them to work together. How subtly? So subtly that Robert still thinks of her a cretin.
Of course, what Günberk and Keiko saw was the easy part. The hard part was what Alfred was hiding beneath Plan Rabbit. When this magnificent intrusion/inspection was complete, there would be no evidence of his research program. Working as the trusted leader of the operation, Alfred was confident that he could accomplish that much. The triumph would be to leave credible evidence that would point bird-dog Günberk somewhere far across the world—and leave Alfred's operation intact in San Diego. Failing that, Alfred would have to rebuild his research setup—and his security—at second-rate sites. He could lose a year or two of development time. (9.4)
If you want to manipulate people, it helps if no one takes you seriously (like Robert and Louise Chumlig above) or if you are trusted by the people you want to manipulate. In Alfred's case, we see that he's trusted—heck, Braun brings the whole problem to his attention (1.1). And we also see here what the end goal of this manipulation is: he wants to get other spies off his back. Does any character in this book manipulate people just for fun?
"I'll contact him like the gentle cloud of coincidence that I am. If the Americans identify him, he will be a perfect red herring. Your EU and Japanese friends would be too cowardly to go for this. You, I think, have more courage. So I'm here to give you a heads-up. Cover me on this." (9.40)
If there's any character who manipulates purely for the fun/the challenge, it would be Rabbit. Here Rabbit is explaining how he's going to use Sharif as a go-between so no one knows that he's talking to Robert. Although Rabbit is explaining this part of the plan to Vaz, notice how many people are on the outside of this plan: Braun and Mitsuri and the Americans, too. So Rabbit is like Vaz—he keeps secrets even from the people he's working with.
Miri hesitated. In fact, all the really successful suggestions had been due to the little girl. Maybe the "little girl" persona was covering something. Miri started a query replicating out through everyone and everything that might provide identity clues. But even if the kid were really ten years old, it wouldn't prove anything. Some fifth graders were scary. (10.35)
Miri is smart and paranoid enough to worry that someone might be manipulating her. (Here, the "little girl" was almost certainly Rabbit, planting in Miri's head the idea to get someone to interview her granddad. Someone like, say, Zulfikar Sharif.) Even though Miri follows up on that idea, sending out queries to see who that little girl was, she soon discards that thought. For extra irony: Miri wonders if she's being manipulated at the same time as she's planning to manipulate Sharif.
Then, for almost two seconds, she was wearing a civilian business suit with an old-fashioned ID lanyard. The ID bore a familiar seal and the letters DHS. Robert knew what that meant. It was all he could do not to flinch back. She can't know everything! He wondered if Alice and Bob were silently coordinating all the scary signs, conspiring to panic him into confession. Somehow, he didn't think Bob was that adept. (16.50)
In this case, Robert is correct: no one is trying to manipulate him. Or rather, his son and daughter-in-law aren't. Everyone else is trying to manipulate Robert, but not these two. In fact, Alice and Bob might be the only characters here who aren't involved in manipulating others or being manipulated. Is that true? And if so, how does that affect our reading of them?
Günberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri: They were top officers in their respective services. Vaz had tracked these two since their college days. He knew more about them than they would ever guess. That was one of the benefits of being very old and very well connected. In a sense, he had guided them into their intel careers, though neither they nor their organizations suspected the fact. They weren't traitors to the EU or Japan, but Alfred understood them so well that he could subtly guide them. (17.1)
In Chapter 1, we've seen that Alfred has a secret plan and needs to manipulate the other intelligence agents. But it's only in Chapter 17 that we hear this part: that in some way, he's the one whose been manipulating their entire careers. Although we never hear what "In a sense" means when it comes to guiding them into their careers. Mostly what we see is that Alfred can get Braun and Mitsuri to go along with his plan, sometimes by making it seem like it's their plan. Does he ever fail with them?
It hesitated, and said offhandedly to Robert, "Oh, don't let the cylinders go untreated. Just drop them onto the lower tray."
Robert didn't move.
"I mean it!" said the Stranger, something like a serious tone creeping into its voice. It flailed about—more dramatic dying, or looking for an explanation? "If the bugs are disease vectors, you're at ground zero! The lower tray will send them to an incinerator, all safe and tidy."
Miri shook her head. "No. That's an alternate path to the UP/Ex launcher."
"Look at my pdf, you fool. The map."
"I looked at my map, the one I cached this afternoon." Miri's smile was triumphant.
There was a two-second lag. Then the creature turned and looked almost straight at Miri. "I hate you, Miri Gu." (28.39-45)
There's a lot of manipulation going on during the library riot/UCSD biotech lab break-in, but we wanted to zero in on this moment. First, because we enjoy Rabbit's attempt to manipulate the Gus into giving him the flies (that he thinks are part of the mind control experiment—which is itself a manipulation of Alfred's). Notice how his manipulation requires him to be "offhanded" and then give them a serious lie and then point them to his (lying) map. Second, we enjoy—nay, love—how Miri defeats his manipulation simply by having access to a better, more truthful map that she prepared before the adventure. Third, we love Rabbit's response to being thwarted. You see that "two-second lag"? Rabbit is not used to people avoiding his manipulations, so he takes a while to process that info.
"I suppose the best evidence the cops think you're innocent is that they let you return to India."
"Indeed so, though sometimes I wonder if I'm not just a fish on a very long line." (35.6-7)
Sure, Miri is manipulated into contacting Sharif, but she's also interested in manipulating Sharif. Sharif is one of the few people (along with Alice and Bob, maybe) who isn't doing any manipulating of his own. But at least at this end point, Sharif realizes that, even if he's innocent, he might be part of a larger manipulation. (Which is probably true: remember, when Bob interviews Robert after the whole mess, Eve Mallory comments that they want Robert running loose (33.29)—probably so that he can be contacted by someone they actually want to catch.)
Where to spend his time? Ah! Atop Montjuïc. He turned down an alley. Where he emerged on the far side, the crowds were thin... and a tourist auto was just arriving for him. Alfred sat back in the single passenger cockpit and let his mind roam. The Montjuïc fortress was not the most impressive in Europe, and yet he had not seen it in some time. Like its brethren, it marked the bygone time when revolutions in destruction technology took decades to unfold, and mass murder could not be committed with the press of a button. (1.76)
The book doesn't make much of this, but Alfred is also kind of old (17.1); so when he goes to see an old fortress that marks a "bygone time," we should consider that Alfred might have known—well, okay, the Montjuïc fortress is from the 1600s, so Alfred isn't that old. But is it possible that his desire to get the world back to an old order has to do with his elderliness?
He just sat there, slumped to the side. His right hand rubbed again and again at the wrist of his left. And yet, this was a big improvement. Robert Gu, Sr, had been down to eighty pounds, a barely living vegetable, when UCSF Medical School took him on for their new treatment. It turned out the UCSF Alzheimer's cure worked where the years of conventional treatment had failed. (2.37)
This is Bob Jr.'s view of his dad and a reminder that Robert Gu nearly bought the farm. Not that we need a reminder: the first time we see Robert, we're told that he "should be dead" and we hear all about how badly off he is—or was. As Bob Gu notes here, Robert doesn't look good, just sitting there and rubbing his wrist, but this is "a big improvement." As we'll see, there's some different ways to get old in the future.
But the light was so bright that Robert saw fiery color even in the shadows. "It's all still a blur, but I haven't seen this well in..." he didn't know how long; time itself had been a darkness "...in years."
A woman spoke from right behind his shoulder. "You've been on the retinal meds for about a week, Robert. Today we felt we had a working population of cells present, so we decided to turn them on." (3.3-4)
The only reason we get Robert Gu as a protagonist in this book is because they have "technology" to combat the symptoms of old age. (Though as we'll see later, not every symptom and disease can be fixed.) We could here sympathize with the weirdness that Robert must be experiencing: here he had lost his marbles and his eyesight and now it's all coming back. (He describes the feeling of his eyeballs as "fizzing." Yeesh.) But let's also note that Robert will have to get used to all this new tech too. In other words: what are "retinal meds"?
"Okay then. You were a smart guy. You have a lot to learn, but I'm betting you'll get those smarts back. Don't panic if you can't remember something. Don't push too hard, either. Practically every day the docs are going to restore some additional capability. The theory is that this will be less disturbing for you. Whether that's right or wrong won't matter if you keep cool. Remember you have a whole loving family here." Lena. Robert lowered his head for a moment. Not a return to childhood, but a kind of second chance. If he could come all the way back from the Alzheimer's, if, if ... then he might have another twenty years left, time to make up for what he had lost. So two goals: his poetry, and ... "Lena." (3.38)
Here, Reed Weber (physician's assistant) tries to get Robert used to the idea of regaining certain abilities he's lost in his old age. Notice that Robert's "Return" (the name of the chapter) is controlled by doctors who have a schedule to "restore some additional capability" day-by-day instead of all at once. Also, note that Robert doesn't think of all the cool new things he could do—he's just interested in getting back what he lost. Is that because he's old and he's looking to the past instead of the future?
"Ah, that's the problem. Whoever is at the top of my affiliance is coy. We're just collecting information. Basically, some of these senior citizens used to be bigshots."
"If they were so big, how come they're in our classes now?" It was just the question the kids asked at school. (4.77-8)
Big Lizard (really Chumlig) has just told Juan to make nice with the senior citizens in school, since they might once have been important. Of course, as we'll see when Juan tries to make friends with Xiu Xiang, Winston Blount, and—shudder—Robert Gu, just because they were important once doesn't mean they're important now. Here's another effect of getting old: not only does your body get old, but you're no longer as important as you once were. Which brings us to—
And then there was Xiu Xiang. PhD physics, PhD electrical engineering; 2010 Winner of the President's Medal for Secure Computation. Overall the hotstuff index on her was almost Nobel quality. Dr. Xiang sat hunched over, looking at the table in front of her. She was trying to keep up on a view-page! Poor lady. But for sure she would have connections. (4.121)
Xiu is one of our favorite oldsters, probably because she builds cool toys that can destroy self-driving cars. However, when we meet her, our first view is pretty sad: first we hear how great she was, with her two PhDs and near Nobel-quality work. Then, we see how far she's fallen: she's "hunched over" (never a position of power or health, so note-to-self: sit up straight please); and she's using a view-page instead of wearable computers. The book really starts out associating "old age" with "old technology." Even low-self-esteem Juan pities Xiu with that "Poor lady" comment, so we can see how badly off she is.
"That's three bubbles back, Dad. And you guessed wrong on every one. But at this point you're nearly certified as self-sufficient. You'd have a hard time scaring up any public assistance. The taxpayers are not kind to seniors; old people run too much of the country already." He hesitated. "And after today, my generosity has run out. Mom died two years ago—and dumped you decades before that. But maybe you should wonder about other things. For instance, where are all your old pals from Stanford?" (8.25)
We really cut this quote out just for the part where Bob says that "old people run too much of the country." Which makes some sense if you have the medical technology to keep old people active and smart. Though it is surprising that we hear this after seeing how slow Robert and Xiu are to get with the program. (How can you run the country if you can't even silent message?) But we should also note how Bob hits on Robert's history here—specifically, how Robert kept messing up. He messed up his finances, his marriage, and his friendship (ha!) with his "old pals." So, can Robert fix all these mistakes he made in the past?
"Me, I'll stick with the proven solutions." He patted his laptop. Through some fluke of memory, Robert recognized the model. Twenty some years ago, this gadget had been at the cutting edge of power and miniaturization, barely eight inches by ten, with a brilliant, millimeters-thin screen and a fancy camera. Now ... even to Robert it was a ponderous behemoth. (12.63)
Nothing ages quite as painfully as technology. Seriously, people were amazed by the first cell phones, but have you seen them recently? Right here, Tommie Parker shows a huge problem with growing old, both for people and tech: what was super cool back in the day soon… isn't. In other words, the guy who sticks to the "proven solution" can't adapt to the future and is stuck in the past.
Then Juan had to go help his mother. As he faded away, Robert studied the examples. He recognized some of the steps from the protocol descriptions, but, "How did you know all that?"
Foolish question. The boy looked a little startled. "It's just—it's just kind of intuitive, you know? I think that's the way the interface is designed." And then he was completely gone. (16.13-4)
There's so much in this book about how old people have to struggle to stay current. But let's just take a moment to nod to the young people in the book, like Miri and Juan. Whereas Robert and Xiu have to study and work hard—look at Robert there, studying the examples—Miri and Juan grew up with this stuff. So to Juan, using the computer is largely "intuitive." Of course, Juan shouldn't let that get to his head: one day he'll be old and he might not be able to learn the next system so easily.
The vocational program was not the gem of Fairmont High. Most of these kids could not master the latest, cutting-edge applications (and most of the retread students were even less competent). On the other hand, Chumlig had asserted in an unguarded moment that parents preferred the vocational demos, mainly because they made more sense to them than what other children were doing. (33.73)
Here we have another reason to play DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's classic, "Parents Just Don't Understand." Even with all that great medical technology, the cutting edge kids (like Miri) can do things that oldsters (even middle-aged oldsters) just don't understand. Which raises lots of questions, like, how do teachers grade students if they can't understand them?
Miri squinted at the broken spine. "'E,' Y—oh, 'Ezra Pound'? Well... yes, I've got all her stuff. Let me show you, Robert!" She hesitated, then saw the foolscap lying atop a box. She picked it up and it came to life. Titles streamed down the page, the cantos, the essays—even, God help us, later criticism from the mindless depths of the twenty-first century. "But seeing it on this page is like looking through a keyhole, Robert. I can show you how to see it all around you, with—" (7.27)
Okay, we confess: we pulled this quote because we're amused that Miri thinks Ezra Pound is a she. But we also pulled it because it contains one of Miri's ideas about communication and technology: trying to read poetry on a view-page is like seeing the world through a keyhole—so you can imagine how little respect she has for books. (It would be like looking through a… pinhole, maybe?) For Miri, this sort of info is everywhere out there, while Robert thinks of books as a main form of communication technology.
If anyone could arrange a matchup with Xiu Xiang, it was her. She opened her mouth to remark on this—and noticed the warning glare in Lena's eyes, as clear as any silent messaging could ever be. (13.93)
Although there's lots of cool tech for communicating (like all that silent messaging), some old forms are still pretty good. In fact, this is an idea we hear at least twice: here with Lena and later with Winston Blount, where his "glare was as good as any high-tech messaging" (26.24). So far all the high-tech stuff, some of the old-fashioned ways to communicate still come in handy… at least for old people.
He looked downstairs again. Strange. He couldn't see into the living room anymore. Normally that was on the house menu, but now it was as private as the bedrooms. He stood and walked over to the door, quietly eased it open half an inch, snooping the good old-fashioned way. (16.64)
Again, for all the cool tech in the book, sometimes the old ways are best… particularly when the cool tech doesn't work for some reason. Here, Robert would normally snoop, but Bob and Alice have put up some sort of privacy restriction on part of the house. But they can't stop him from sneaking out of his door and snooping the "old-fashioned way." Maybe they are vulnerable to that sort of snooping because they're mostly used to dealing with high-tech snooping? So, bonus points to Robert for making his old age and old habits work. (And let's add the fact that Alice and Bob make the living room private communicates that they're talking about something important enough to be snooped on.)
"Yeah." Rivera sounded close to surly. He looked over his shoulder at Robert. "What does he have on you, Professor?"
"I — — "
"Ah, ah, ah!" interrupted the Stranger. "I think we'd all be more comfortable without such revelations."
"Okay," said both victims. (21.25-8)
Without communicating it explicitly, Robert and Carlos Rivera have figured out that both of them have bargained with the Mysterious Stranger/Rabbit. It's amusing to us that Stranger/Rabbit tries to stop them from communicating more, but that very comment reveals stuff. By telling them not to talk about it, Rabbit has given away that there is something to talk about.
Robert tapped at his keypad:
Robert — > Miri: Thts whr we put most of our eqt.
Miri's chin came up.
Miri — > Robert: The sounds are like what we heard here. Someone's packaging another shipment out. (28.57-60)
If you wanted to write a paper on how "Technology" interacts with "Communication," you might want to look here. Note that Robert is using some old technology in the steam tunnels, so he has to type out his message. (And don't you just love his txtspeak abbrevs? Very early 2000s.) But Miri, who has her wearable computer still, just needs to move her chin and she sends a message in very clear English. (Even with italics!)
"This is crazy," said Winston. "How can you know there are nodes in your line of sight?"
"I don't. I'm going to shine signals off the sky haze. I'm calling in the marines." And then she was talking to her view-page. (29.81-2)
Even when the high-tech communication breaks down, people still find ways to communicate. Winston might have to make do with glares, but Xiu Xiang came prepared for this with a high/low-tech solution of bouncing a signal off the sky haze. (It would be clouds elsewhere, but San Diego is a cloudless paradise.) As with Rabbit trying to prevent revelations in the quote above, communication is hard to stop totally. Which brings us to—
In the midst of network failure, these people were reduced to literal word of mouth. But that word was spreading. More and more people realized that for only the third or fourth time in recent history, their own country was under a military assault. So far none of them had guessed that it was their own military's doing. (32.58)
In a moment of almost complete technological failure, we're reduced to our most primitive technology: talking to each other. However, even at this moment when communication seems reduced to its most basic, it still seems pretty effective. Maybe people don't have access to Twitter so they can't see the bigger picture (as Alfred Vaz can), but the communication that is going on seems helpful to these people.
I didn't mean for this. He should say nothing, but his body betrayed him:
Anonymous — > Robert Gu: Where is your little girl? (32.79-80)
One of our big questions about silent messaging (SM) is how close it is to actual telepathy. Like here, Alfred is getting away after his plans have been ruined. So he's a little upset. But what does this quote mean when it says "his body betrayed him"? Does that mean that, without meaning to, his body made the little moves that would send this message through his wearable computer? If so, why doesn't that happen more often?
"We were," said Tommie, "but we came back. Wanted to congratulate you on your music synch gimmick."
Xiu Xiang nodded agreement. Of the two, only she was wearing. A congrats logo floated out from her. Poor Tommie was still lugging around his laptop, though whatever remained inside surely belonged to the secret police.
"Thanks. I'm proud of it, but emphasize the word gimmick. No one really needs to synch manual music across thousands of miles of cheapnet. And basically, I just took advantage of routing predictabilities plus knowledge of the music being played." (34.34-6)
Juan and Robert's final project is a "symbol" for the difficulty of getting people to work together. (And some other stuff.) But it's also an excellent example of the difficulties and possibility of communication: they had to coordinate a whole worldwide network of people to get this simple communication to work. There's even more here to note about communication and how different people use it: notice that Tommie is still lugging around that laptop, though Xiu Xiang is able to communicate via sm.
There was no physical address, but he could write her a simple message. It took him only two hours to do so. Less than two hundred words. They were the most important words that Robert Gu had ever written. (35.98)
As we know from "Literature and Writing" (and also from the whole book), Robert is (or was) a pretty good put-words-togetherer. And yet, when it comes to writing his ex-wife a letter, it takes him forever to write a simple message. The quote here drives this home by switching between making it seem simple—"a simple message," "less than two hundred words"—and emphasizing how hard and important it is—it takes two hours, and they are "the most important words." No matter how easy it is to communicate, it can be hard to tell people how you feel.
And where he should continue his art was obvious: with Secrets of the Ages. He had spent five years on the cantos of that sequence, poems such as "Secrets of the Child," "Secrets of the Young Lovers," "Secrets of the Old." But his "Secrets of the Dying" had been an arrant fake, written before he really started to die—no matter that people seemed to think it was the most profound canto of the sequence. But now... yes, something new: "Secrets of the One Who Came Back." The ideas were coming and surely verse would follow. (3.45)
When you finish the book, you know that Robert will never get to writing that verse that he thinks he will. In fact, most of what we get of his poetry are these titles, which seem to break down life into fairly recognizable sections: child, young person, old person, dying person. Basically: don't the titles sound very generic?
Those were almost the only books in the house. This family was effectively illiterate. Sure, Miri bragged that many books were visible any time you wanted to see them, but that was a half truth. The browser paper that Reed had given him could be used to find books online, but reading them on that single piece of foolscap was a tedious desecration. (3.61)
If you had a dime for every time Robert called someone illiterate, you would have around half a dollar. And Robert doesn't make any excuses for the people close to him. Robert says this (they are "effectively illiterate") even though his next comment agrees that he could find books online. He basically seems to be a physical book snob here, right? Now here's a question that a website shouldn't ask: is he right to be a snob for physical books?
Some mornings, his mind was awash with ideas for "Secrets of the One Who Came Back" and his revision of "Secrets of the Dying." Yet none of these morning brainstorms contained poetical detail. He had the ideas. He had concepts down to the level of verse blocks. But he didn't have the words and phrases that made ideas into beauty. (3.108)
We hit pretty hard on the idea that Robert can't write poetry anymore… although the book hits pretty hard on that idea, too. It might seem unfair to Robert to say he can't write poetry—look, he still has ideas! Doesn't that count for something? Well, Robert doesn't think so and he's the expert. As long as he can't put words together, he's not really a poet anymore.
And then Juan wasn't really aware of the words anymore. He was seeing; he was there. His mind floated above the little valley, scooted up the creek bed, had almost reached the foot of Pyramid Hill... when suddenly Robert Gu stopped talking, and Juan was dumped back into the reality of his place at the rear end of Ms. Chumlig's composition class. He sat for a few seconds, dazed. (6.29)
But then we get to this section in Chapter 6, when Robert struts his poetry stuff. And Robert may not be particularly impressed by what he can do, but look at the effect it has on Juan, one of those illiterates that Robert looks down on. Juan is blown away—almost literally, since his mind seems to travel virtually over the area that Robert is poetizing about. Notice how Vinge uses one long line to express Juan's virtual movement ("His mind floated") and how an ellipsis ("…") interrupts that virtual experience. Why not break that long sentence up? Why not use a dash instead of an ellipsis?
Sharif had filtered out the plagiarists and the sarcastic jerkoffs. That left very little. So much for high technology. He had spent the last two semesters propping up Blandings's career in Deconstructive Revisionism. In the remaining time, he worked at a 411 job for the American Poetry Association and did his best to craft a thesis out of vapor. He had come to America hoping for old-world insight into the literature that he loved. (10.40)
Sharif might be the second biggest lover of literature after Robert. But even though Sharif loves literature and came to America to study it, it's not working out so well for him. First, there are all the academic shenanigans that go on (plagiarists and sarcastic people); second, there's the professor who isn't very helpful; third, there's the job and the trouble doing his thesis homework. He sounds like a lot of graduate students we know now.
Juan Orozco was distinctly less able than the students of Robert's experience. By twentieth-century standards he was subliterate... except where he needed words to access data or understand results. Okay, perhaps he was not subliterate. Maybe there was some other word for these crippled children. Paraliterate? (14.51)
Finally, Robert is beginning to use "subliterate" and "illiterate" less frequently when describing people around him. By this point, Robert is willing to admit that Juan isn't much dumber than the people from Robert's time as a teacher. It sure is nice of him to recognize that these "crippled children" have certain skills that he doesn't, like silent messaging.
A drug dealer, by God! Robert almost laughed for real. But then he considered himself, his smooth skin, his ability to run and jump and scarcely feel out of breath. What's already happened would be magic by the standards of my past life. Yes, this might be a drug dealer, but so what? (14.138)
Robert may laugh at first at the idea that drugs (or surgery) could get him back him poetic talent, but this is the future! Notice how quick Robert is here to come around: His first two lines are skeptical, but by the third line, he's already beginning to accept the idea. And this is another measure of how desperate Robert is to get his poetry back. If he's willing to take drugs from a drug dealer, you know he's desperate.
"You three are Knights Guardian. And I'm a Librarian Militant. It's all from Jerzy Hacek's Dangerous Knowledge stories."
Blount nodded. "You never read any of those, did you, Robert?"
Robert vaguely remembered Hacek from about the time he retired. He sniffed. "I read the important things." (15.129-131)
Not only does Robert starts out as a snob about physical books, he's a snob about the type of books he reads. So Robert may love poetry (or at least his poetry; he thinks Kipling is "jingoistic elevator music" (7.16)); but when it comes to Hacek, you can count him out. (Final question: Hacek seems like fantasy to us, but what description do we hear about those made-up books?)
"We represent books as near-living things, creatures that serve and bewitch their readers. Terry Pratchett and then Jerzy Hacek have been playing on that theme for years. But we really didn't appreciate the power of it all. We have some of the best Hacek belief circles helping with this." (15.148)
Writing is usually a pretty solitary pursuit (unless you're writing a screenplay at a coffee shop, in which case, so is everyone around you); but when a book is let out into the world, it can gain a life of its own—and a pretty social life at that. Here librarian Carlos Rivera describes how the Geisel library is taking that metaphor and making it literal: the books here act as if they are alive (as in the books of Pratchett and Hacek). Also, note that this virtual world—that started with a single author writing a book—has become a social activity, with the "Hacek belief circles" pitching in to help.
"Can we expect something new under the sun? For the first time in human history, a new Secret of the Ages?"
Ah. "You're right, there is room for something more. But you know—some secrets are beyond the expression of those who experience them." (35.15-6)
After all that trouble (nearly getting arrested by Homeland Security and all), Zulfi Sharif still wants to know if there's going to be some more poetry. Which shows how dedicated he is to poetry. But what does it say about Robert that he claims here that some experiences can't be captured in expression? Is he just saying that he can't do it? Or is he actually saying that literature can't "communicate" everything?
The first bit of dumb luck came disguised as a public embarrassment for the European Center for Defense Against Disease. On July 23, schoolchildren in Algiers claimed that a respiratory epidemic was spreading across the Mediterranean. The claim was based on clever analysis of antibody data from the mass-transit systems of Algiers and Naples. (Prologue.1)
In the future of Rainbows End, power isn't completely centralized, especially if we're talking about computing power. The book starts off with this notion in the very first lines: the government program didn't catch the disease, a group of schoolchildren did. In this future, kids can sometimes do things that governments have trouble doing.
In another year or so, he'd have developed higher semantic controls. With that, he could reliably control those immediately around him. Much more important, he could spread the new infection across whole populations and engineer a few universally viewed transmissions. Then he would be in control. For the first time in history, the world would be under adult supervision. (1.88)
This is Vaz thinking/gloating about how close he is to world domination. This paragraph begins with Vaz thinking about how mind control is the only way to save the world—which sounds weird but not necessarily self-centered. But notice where he ends the paragraph, talking about being the one in control. When someone says the world will be under "adult supervision" and means "me," we might wonder how well meaning his search for power is.
The details were a cloud of contradiction, some agreeing with what Bob told him, some not. It was this damn Friends of Privacy. It was hard to imagine such villains, doing their best to undermine what you could find on the net. A "vandal charity" was what they called themselves. (3.62)
Just because schoolchildren can figure out a disease is spreading, doesn't mean that every individual has all the information they could want. Take, for example, Robert looking up his dead (he thinks) ex-wife. Thanks to a "community" of people who think that privacy is important, Robert has trouble finding info on her. In this case, the person who wants privacy has more power than the person doing the investigating.
The twins were grinning at him. Jerry waved at the hill. "How would you like to play Cretaceous Returns, but with real feeling?"
Pyramid Hill managers knew exactly what to charge for different levels of touchy-feely experience. The low end was pretty cheap; "real feeling" was at the top. "Ah, that's too expensive."
"Sure it is. If you pay." (4.12-4)
Wherever there's power and rules, there's going to be people trying to break the rules. Like here, where the Radners think about breaking in to the amusement park's most expensive game form. This may be a silly little moment that doesn't impact the plot much, but it sets up a pattern we'll see again, with the little guys (like Juan and the Radners) trying to sneak past the big guys (the Pyramid Hill managers).
Alfred Vaz had no official rank in the External Intelligence Agency, but he had immense power there. Even with modern compartmentalization techniques, he never could have cloaked his research programs otherwise. (9.53)
One big question in Rainbows End is how individual power deals with institutional power. So, Rabbit can go merrily hacking through computer security, but the Elder Cabal can't really stop the school administration from shredding all the books. But those lines aren't always so clear, as we see here with Vaz: Vaz is a very powerful person who both does and doesn't belong to the intelligence community, where he has power and influence, but no official rank and a super secret office.
Tommie looked up from his laptop. "He's gone. And I've deadzoned the sixth floor." He pointed at an LED on the edge of his ancient-looking laptop.
Robert remembered some of Bob's claims: "Even the Homeland Security hardware?"
"Don't tell, Robert." He patted his computer. "Genuine Paraguayan inside, shipped just before they shut the fabs down." (15.45-48)
If the Radners survive their teenage years, they might grow up to be someone like Tommie Parker. And instead of fooling the Pyramid Hill managers, they might be doing something like fooling Homeland Security and other government surveillance. And here we see where his power comes from: some illegal "technology." (Bonus: His Paraguayan tech might be related to Bob's mission to Asuncion, Paraguay (7.37).)
Robert gestured in the way that was supposed to revert vision to unenhanced reality. But he was still seeing purple light and ancient, leather-bound manuscripts. He tapped the explicit reversion signal. Still no onset of reality. "I'm stuck in this view." (15.137)
When it comes to virtual views, the person wearing the computer is supposed to be able to choose. But here in the library, Robert learns that the library has all the power over what he sees. (Unless he—gasp!—takes out his computerized contacts.) This will be the source of some of the fighting over the library: when everyone is used to choosing their own view, losing that power might be reason to protest.
Xiu had helped design the hardware security layer. It solved so many problems. It made the Internet a safe and workable system. Now she was its victim... She thought again of the bag of tricks that sat on the floor beside her feet. She had spent the whole semester building those gadgets, her mechanical daydreams. Maybe— (27.25)
So many ways of analyzing this bad boy: there's the "Individual vs. System" angle: so Xiu once developed the security that she is now trapped by. (If she were a bad person, we'd probably call that poetic justice; since we like her, it's more like a tragedy.) Then there's the "Technology and Power" angle: sure, she's stuck in a car, but she has a whole set of toys that might help her out. And then, like the Radners and Tommie, there's the "Fight the power" angle: she's stuck in a car, but she'll make it do what she wants if she has to cut it open. (Which she does.)
"I don't remember anything after Miri and I got to campus. And the police are still holding what I wore. I can't even see the last few minutes of my diary!" The kid waved his arms with the same desperation Robert had seen in him the first day they met. (33.55-6)
Here's a pretty extreme form of power: Juan lost his memories, his wearable computer, and all the info about what actually happened to him. So he's reduced to learning about what happened to him from the news, which is a weird way to learn about yourself. But here, Juan doesn't really have any power over the government. Heck, Juan doesn't even have any power over the Friends of Privacy. No wonder he's so desperate.
"The current Dean of A and L is Jessica Laskowicz. She's another medical retread. Back in the oughts, she was a secretary in the division. Nowadays, the career track for admin assistants doesn't have any ceiling, but Winston is starting awfully far down—and the best gossip is that he and Laskowicz never got along." (Epilogue.53)
Winston is another character to look at if you're interested about individuals vs. systems/institutions. He used to be a powerful dean, but when we meet him, he's just a guy on the outside, trying to get in. As we hear at the end, he learns that there are no shortcuts for him to get the sort of power he wants. And as we see here, the old system of power seems to have been upended, when the current dean used to be a secretary and the current admin assistant used to be the dean. It's a nice reminder at the end of the book of what we saw at the beginning: schoolchildren figuring out what a government agency missed.
It was hard to dominate people when you didn't know what they were talking about. (3.76)
If you need a lesson in how to behave, just look at what Robert does at the beginning of this book—and then do the opposite. If you just read this sentence, where would you think Robert is? Engaged in a political conspiracy? Working through the criminal underworld? No, he's at dinner with his family—and he's still thinking about dominating and crushing other people.
"My guess is I'm way, way down. That's how it is with most affiliances. But I can pay real money for each answer I pipe upwards." The creature named a number; it was enough to ride the freefall every day for a year. A payoff certificate floated in the air between them, showing the named amount and a bonus schedule. (4.66)
One form of community/business that is at the heart of Rainbows End is affiliance, which is a word our spellchecker hates. Affiliance is more like a contract than a friendship, but it's a type of social relation that, here, gets certain people talking to each other. Note that this is the only time that Juan thinks about what he can afford with this affiliance's pay. The rest of the time, the money issue fades into the background.
"Mom died two years ago—and dumped you decades before that. But maybe you should wonder about other things. For instance, where are all your old pals from Stanford?" (8.25)
Bob is a little mean here, but maybe you have to be mean to get through to Robert. Here, Bob reminds Robert that he has no community to fall back on: he never had any real good friends, he drove away his wife, and now, with the Ezra Pound Incident, he's driven away the one person who really wanted to help him—Miri.
So Miri hung out with farther-away friends. Jin's parents were shrinks in the Provincial Medical Care Group in Hainan. Jin didn't speak very good English, but then Miri's Mandarin was worse. Actually, language wasn't a problem. They'd get together on his beach or hers—depending on which side of the world was daylight or had the nicest weather—and chatter away in Goodenuf English, the air around them filled with translation guesstimates and picture substitutions. (10.4)
First, let's note that the end of this quote really connects community to "Communication" and to "Technology": Miri is able to be friends with a kid in China because their computers are able to help translate for them. But we're putting this here as a reminder that, in the future, distance is not a barrier to community or friendship. You can meet to chat with friends all over the world.
"The glue?" Tommie looked faintly embarrassed. "It doesn't exist yet. But it's almost been invented." Tommie had broached the concept on an ornamental gardening forum, crossed that with some VCs. The Ornamental Shrub Society of Japan was even now working with some Argentine biologists to create the final form of the aerosol. (15.106)
Just as Miri can be friends with people around the world, so Tommie can use the internet to get answers from a distributed network of people. The Ornamental Shrub Society and the Argentine biologists might not come up with the aerosol glue on their own, but if you get these two communities to start talking to each other—forming some sort of super-community—then things can really happen.
Finally he got a window that promised "public local reality only." Yeah. Only two hundred thousand of them for this part of San Diego County. He chose at random. Outside the car, the North County hillsides were swept clean of the subdivisions. The road had only three lanes and the cars were out of the 1960s. He noticed the tag on the windshield of his car (now a Ford Falcon): San Diego Historical Society. (15.202)
Okay, so maybe only sometimes the Tokyo-based Ornamental Shrub Society and the Argentine biologists can work together. More often, it seems like we get the situation Robert sees here: there are lots of niche communities, like the Pratchett fans or the San Diego Historical Society. But these separate communities aren't interacting with each other and Robert has to choose between them. And it's hard to choose between 200,000 separate communities.
One of the youngest marines laughed. "You're just getting old, Nancy. Cross-belief strife is tragic new."
Bob didn't try to parse the slang, but he'd heard enough from Dad and Miri to get the point. (20.143-4)
Thankfully, however weird the future gets, we can be assured of one thing: young people use slang. "Tragic" is about the only slang that we see in this book. But this marine's use of slang marks him as part of a young community.
"I thought the whole point of belief circles was that they can coexist in the same space."
"But," Rivera continued, "the library is a tight fit. In principle we can morph to support the multiple beliefs, like on Pyramid Hill. In fact, our environment is often too close for conflicting haptics." (21.23)
Here's the flipside to those 200,000 views that Robert was choosing between: there, you had many communities and no interaction. But, as librarian Rivera explains, in the library, they couldn't fit too many views in because people would be interacting with each other. So since these different communities (the belief circles) couldn't ignore each other, now they're going to war for the library.
The affair had called into existence (or simply into his notice?) a creature that might be his equal. Rabbit had played both sides through the first part of the riot... but now Dangerous Knowledge had been taken over by something very creative, something who was having as much fun tonight as Rabbit himself. So he had millions of new affiliates, some of them as capable as a human could ever be. And he'd found a special new friend, to boot. (25.28)
Just as Robert has to deal with being completely alone and without community, so Rabbit has to deal with being one-of-a-kind. Now, with his affiliances, Rabbit has lots of connections with people, but no one that's his equal/friend. Until now, when Dangerous Knowledge is being driven by someone who seems like "a special new friend." This is a happy moment for Rabbit and a reminder that up till now, he had no community of equals. (This quote is Evidence with a capital "E" that Rabbit isn't human given the way he thinks about humans and himself.)
"The Scoochis have always been eclectic. Now that they have a librareome, they're building game consensus down to fine-grained topic levels, often down to individual paragraphs. It's much more subtle than the Hacek stuff, though children pick up on it very quickly. Their real power is that Scoochis can blend realities. That's what's happened with them and the Hacekeans. The Scoochis come from all over, even from the failed states. Now they're feeding the digitizations back outwards. Wherever it fits, the Hacek people are running things. Other places, other visions—but all with access to the entire body of the library." (Epilogue.41)
Here's the awesome result of the library riot: both belief circles—the Scoochis and the Hacekians—are now working together. We'll be honest, this paragraph kind of confuses us: on one hand, Rivera says, "they're building game consensus," which makes it sound like everyone is agreeing on what they're seeing. But then he adds "Other places, other visions" which, well, doesn't sound like consensus. Like we said, we're not entirely sure how this is working, but we can say that the Scoochis and the Hacekians seem to have formed one big community here.
As a child, Günberk Braun had often daydreamed of how, in an earlier time, he might have prevented the firebombing of Dresden, or stopped the Nazis and their death camps, or kept Stalin from starving the Ukraine. (Prologue.19)
Like Alfred, Günberk identifies himself as a potential hero, which is one of the reasons why we feel bad for him. Here's a guy whose identity as a spy is wrapped up with this childhood wish to be a savior. Moreover, as we see in the prologue, he's got the skills to do that. That doesn't seem so bad. So why doesn't it work out for Günberk Braun?
"I wager he's fourteen years old and desperately eager to show off." He glanced at Vaz. "Is this the best you could come up with, Alfred?"
"His reputation is not a fraud, Günberk. He has managed projects almost as complex as what we have in mind for him." (1.47-8)
Rabbit is our most mysterious character. After all, his other major identity is as The Mysterious Stranger, so yeah: we don't know who he is (which is why he's a stranger). We can only judge by his personality and by his ability/reputation.
He suspended his question queue and dropped the external session. At the same time, he played back the last few minutes of her talk, desperately trying to summarize. Most times, Chumlig just asked embarrassing questions; this was the first she'd sminged him with a threat.
And the amazing thing was, she'd done it in a short pause, when everyone else thought she was just looking at her notes. Juan eyed her with new respect. (4.125-6)
Louise Chumlig is not simply what she appears to be, unless she appears to you to be a very perceptive teacher and an accomplished techie. Juan doesn't see that at first, so when she catches him not paying attention in class and sends him a quick sm like an expert, he begins to suspect she might have skills. And this is really the first hint of it, though pretty soon we'll see more.
"You remember, we talked about this when Grandpa came? He is not necessarily a nice fellow" —except when he wants a favor, or he's setting you up for a fall; then he can charm almost any human ever born. (7.43)
Perhaps the biggest question about identity in Rainbows End is, "what kind of a person is Robert?" Here's Bob telling Miri that she shouldn't take Robert seriously when he critiques her: he's not critiquing to tell the truth but because he want to hurt you. Besides the understatement of "not necessarily a nice fellow," we also like Bob's thought here that Robert can be nice if he wants something. So that's what Bob thinks of his dad's identity: he's a manipulative jerk.
Tommie shook his head. "You could be almost anything. You could be a committee. When you want to sound like a lit-lover, we get chat from a member who knows about poetry." Tommie tilted back his chair. "There's an old saying: The beginning of trust has to be an in-person contact. I don't see any usable chain of trust in your biography." (12.139)
Tommie tells Sharif that he doesn't trust his online appearance. (We love the idea that Sharif could be a committee of people because, well, Tommie could be right. If you only meet someone online, they could be a committee.) Unfortunately for Tommie, he seems to be stuck in an older way of thought: that "old saying" might have been right for the past, when you could meet someone and then talk to them online; but here, Tommie can meet Sharif in person—and then meet Rabbit online pretending to be Sharif later.
The first time it happened, Robert almost didn't notice—partly because neither Bob or Miri reacted. Half a minute later—as Alice gestured emphatically about some outstandingly trivial election issue—there was another flicker. For an instant she was dressed in something like naval whites, but the collar insignia said "PHS." PHS? There were lots of different Google hits on the abbreviation. A minute or two passed, and she was briefly a USMC full colonel. That, Robert had seen before, since it was her true rank. (16.48)
Alice should have a pretty clear identity: she's a Marine, wife, mother, daughter-in-law. Sure, that gets complicated, but that's the sort of identity that we have now. But in the future, when she gets agitated (mostly because of the JIT training), look at how her identity seems to go through a number of virtual costumes. How does Alice maintain her sanity when her identity seems so diverse?
"Rabbit is everything we could want."
"He is more, Alfred." Günberk's gaze was steady. For all his youth, Braun had the stolid aspect of a turn-of-the-century German. He moved from point to point slowly, inexorably. "In setting up this operation, Rabbit has performed miracles on our behalf. His ability demonstrates that he himself is a threat." (17.13-14)
a) Although Braun may think of himself as a potential hero/savior, from Vaz's POV, Braun's identity is that of a stolid German. There's a lesson in there somewhere about how people see us differently than we see ourselves. b) Note how Braun's feelings about Rabbit have changed: Braun used to think Rabbit was a fourteen-year-old showoff twit; but now that Rabbit has demonstrated some real skill, Braun thinks his identity should be "threat."
For Robert Gu, these new exams were hard. It was not a foregone conclusion that he would max the tests and outdo everyone around him. The only similar situation from his past was in undergraduate school, when he had been briefly forced into real science courses. In those classes, he had finally met students who were not automatically his inferiors—and he had also met teachers who were not impressed by his genius. Once past the mandatory science curriculum, Robert had avoided such humiliation. (19.2)
It's sadly all too predictable that Robert, who used to love humiliating and hurting other people, would have "avoided such humiliation" himself. He could dish it out but not take it. That aside, we can see how much of Robert's identity was tied up with how other people treated him.
Juan looked back and forth between them. There was the beginning of shining pride on his face, though he seemed to guess that there were words unspoken going between Winnie and Robert. (34.11)
If Braun and Mitsuri have tragic stories, Juan's is something of a victory: he started out as a kid who thought of himself as a loser and a chump; and now he ends up with "the beginning of shining pride." Not only that, but he's gained a fair bit of skill, both in writing poetry (as shown by his final project) and in dealing with oldsters.
"Do you think your talent and your malevolence were a package deal?" Sharif leaned forward, engaged in a way that Robert had not seen since their interviews of weeks before. "I... doubt that. But researching the issue would be intriguing. For that matter, I have long wondered—and been too timid to ask—what really changed in you? Were you a decent fellow from the time of your dementia cure? Or was the change as in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with new experience making you kindlier?" (35.25)
Right up there with "Who is Rabbit?" this is the question about identity that keeps us up at nights. What was it that made Robert into a non-jerk? (We won't go too far and say he's nice.) Was it the sickness? Or being alone and powerless in the new world of 2025? And was his poetic ability tied up with his jerkiness? These questions seem open (and possibly worth a paper).
The heirs of drug wars past had been in eclipse this last decade; access to "ecstasy and enhancement" was so widespread that competition had done what enforcement could never accomplish. (1.52)
Rainbows End doesn't focus on this, but the growth of tech changes the drug market seriously. Basically, tech crushes the illegal drug trade—at least for the old drugs. So already we see how much change comes from tech.
Every day there were new changes in himself, and old barriers suddenly removed. He could easily accept Reed Weber's advice to be patient with his limitations. So much was changing and all for the better. One day he was walking again, even if it was a lurching, unstable gait. He fell three times that first day, and each time, he just bounced back to his feet. (3.46)
This section soon moves on to Robert playing ping-pong on a very old table, but let's just look at this part, which emphasizes Robert's changes. One curious aspect of these medical changes is that they are, in effect, changing him back to the days before he got old. There aren't a lot of changes back in this book.
"Oh." Chumlig looked kind of sad for a moment, like she was figuring out how to pass on bad news. "Administration has changed a lot, Dean Blount."
Winston Blount sat back in his chair. "Okay. So we have to learn some new tricks." (4.102-3)
Blount is another man out of time. Like Robert, he wants to get back on top—and he's willing to… well, what? Chumlig says that there are changes, but Blount doesn't seem to take them seriously when he says that he'll learn the new tricks. Memo to Blount: the change isn't just "tricks."
But the poems he wrote, almost without conscious effort, were already in a different world from what his poor teachers normally encountered. They considered themselves blessed to be in his presence—and rightly so.
But in this brave new world he could see only a fraction of the "compositions" the students allegedly created, and he had no doubt they could appreciate very little about his work. (6.1-2)
Like Blount, Robert doesn't really take this future changes seriously. Notice how he says the students "allegedly" create works and how he has to put composition in quotation marks. This is Robert in high jerk form. But we also get a glimpse here of his past, of how great he used to be as a poet. So sure, he's in for a rude awakening, but you might almost feel bad for the guy who has to face this level of change.
One of the sand crabs reared back, a lurker drawn into the open. "So what's new in that? My brother is all unemployed and depressed, and he's only twenty. It's hard to keep up." (10.6)
The oldsters are not alone in being left behind by all the technological changes. As one of Miri's friends tells her (in a virtual world), even young(ish) people have to work hard to stay current. Is this an accurate statement?
Lazy bum, thought Robert, and wondered at Sharif's earlier enthusiasm for "real books." But he had noticed the trend even in his own teaching days. It wasn't just the students who refused to get their hands dirty. Even so-called researchers ignored the universe of things that weren't online. (12.122)
Once again, Robert reacts to a change by getting angry or dismissive: here, when Zulfikar Sharif says that digital archives are pretty cool, Robert immediately goes to calling him a lazy bum. But this isn't a totally new change, as Robert notes. Back in his time, students and teachers started getting into digital archives. So not everything about the future is totally new.
Lena watched the other woman for a second and then she seemed to wilt back into her wheelchair. She looked down at her granddaughter. "Poor Miri. You don't understand. You live in a time that thinks it can ignore the human condition." She cocked her head. "You never read Secrets of the Ages, did you?" (13.107)
For Lena, whose disease can't be cured (and whose ex-husband was a total jerk), all those medical miracles can't change the human condition; as she tells her granddaughter Miri, the future tech "distracts you from the bedrock of reality" (109). This is the meaning of Robert's poem sequence Secrets of the Ages, according to Lena: some stuff can be changed, but the human condition remains the same.
The Mysterious Stranger waved them on through the brush. "A tradition?" he said. "But that would be a plus. Like panty raids and putting automobiles on top of administration buildings. The sort of thing that made American universities great." (21.19)
Of course, to Rabbit/The Mysterious Stranger, it's the prank-like traditions that made American universities great. So it's no wonder that he would want to contribute by making the library riot into a sort of tradition. Which nicely points out how traditions start as change, as something new (and probably disruptive). It's only when it sticks around that it becomes "tradition" and we forget what a big change it was in the first place.
Sometimes decisions come down to one poor slob on the ground. (31.29)
Bob has a lot more firepower in 2025 than he would have in 2013. His command also involves far fewer actual marines (20.135). But some things don't change in a war or battle, like how the soldiers at the scene sometimes have to make decisions for themselves. Note also that this comment of Bob's is present tense and broad—it's not just "this decision," but multiple "decisions." Bob recognizes that this is a situation that will continue to happen without serious change.
Grades for the demos wouldn't be available for another twenty hours or so. They would have plenty of time to agonize over their failings. Nevertheless, Louise Chumlig looked quite cheerful, giving each student her congratulations—and deflecting all manner of questions about whether this or that deficit should truly be of any grading significance. (34.1)
To end, here's another aspect of the future that remains the same as now: even when students might make money with their final projects, it's hard not to worry about the grade. Maybe one day we'll have computerized teachers that give grades immediately. We can only hope. (Also, note that this is from Robert's POV and he doesn't call Chumlig or the students any names—so we know he's changed.)
The bidding on physical tour slots to the Sagrada Familia was closed for the day, but there was still a queue of people near the cathedral entrance, people hoping for no-shows. It proved once again that the most important things were those you could touch. (1.22)
Vaz is visiting Barcelona in person (as he will later visit San Diego in person). So when Vaz, here notes that "the most important things were those you could touch," we could just take that as the old-fashioned rantings of an older man. After all, while it's true that there are tourists waiting for physical tours, let's think about what's implied: that there are virtual tours also. If you can't make it all the way to Barcelona, you still have a chance of seeing the cultural landmarks there.
Among other things, Pyramid Hill claimed to have the longest freefall ride in California.
The twins were grinning at him. Jerry waved at the hill. "How would you like to play Cretaceous Returns, but with real feeling?" (4.11-2)
Vernor Vinge loves him some contrast. Like here at the Pyramid Hill Amusement Park, we get a reminder that amusement parks often involve some physical aspect—like that "longest freefall" ride. Then we get the contrast with the virtual game, Cretaceous Returns—and then, for a final contrast, we get the reminder that the best virtual game experience mimics… actual physical experience.
It was as impressive as any advertising video that Robert had seen in the twentieth century. At the same time it was essentially incoherent, a garbage dump of special effects. So much technology, so little talent. (6.11)
New tech makes certain forms of culture possible, but sometimes it's hard to adjust. So when Robert sees Juan's crazy virtual composition, he compares it to… advertising. (Which for him is probably the lowest form of culture—it might not even qualify as culture.) Of course, the joke is on Robert when Juan praises Robert's poetry as "as good as any of the top game advertisers" (6.54).
But the only paper was the foolscap, and when he wrote on it, his scrawling penmanship was re-formed into neat, fontified lines. That had been an irritation in days past, but never enough to force him to dig up real paper. Today, now... he could see that his soul was sucked out of the words before he could make them sing! It was the ultimate victory of automation over creative thought. (7.13)
Here's a complaint we sometimes hear (in real life) from old people (or people who just dislike technology), that technology interferes with creativity. Of course, it's easy to imagine someone from an earlier time period saying to Robert, "You write things down? That must ruin your creativity. We only memorize our poems orally." In other words, Robert sees the computer as technology that stifles culture, but isn't pen-and-paper just another form of tech? (Also, does Robert ever talk about souls except when he's whining about computers?)
The singers were louder. It sounded as if they were singing "La Marseillaise." But there were also chants that sounded like a good old-fashioned student protest. (11.50)
There's a cross-over here between culture and "change": Robert thinks what he's hearing is a good old-fashioned student protest. (He could just say "old-fashioned" but this is Robert, fan of the old-fashioned.) But when we see this protest more clearly later (in Chapter 12), we can notice some differences, like the fact that at least part of the protest is virtual. Computers have gotten into all kinds of culture here.
There was lots of noise and action, but if you listened carefully, you could tell that the kids in the bushes were actually playing in other universes, all choreographed so neither players nor equipment would get in each other's way. She had picked the right cover; classical anime was just too highbrow for these dorks. (13.11)
And here's a cross-over between culture and "community": as Miri notes, there are lots of kids playing games at Pyramid Hill, but they are playing different games. So is culture tearing communities apart? Or forming different sorts of communities? But if we had to be honest, we also pulled this quote for Miri's remark that "classical anime" is "too highbrow." Partly, that could just be the jerky streak she shares with Robert, but it could also be a reminder how culture shifts: anime, which used to be a fringe culture, has now become elite.
One child broke away from the others and raced along the golden fire, somehow guessing just where and when it would flare up. The girl gave an odd, flailing kick — and landed on her rear. For an instant there was a light in the nearest goal, so sharp and intense it was as if all the fog had suddenly coalesced into the fuzzy image of a soccer ball. Everybody was shouting, even the phantom adults in the bleachers.
Robert made a grumpy noise. Even something as simple as a schoolyard game didn't make sense. (14.124-5)
Egan soccer is a new form of an old game. (How old is soccer? Let's put it this way: some of the earliest players probably wore togas.) Robert doesn't understand the game—heck, we're not sure that we do, either. At least we can all agree that this game involves a lot more technology than just a ball and a goal. Even supporting your kid has changed some, as you see some of those "phantom adults" are only there virtually.
"The wonders of nano-fluidics. A decade of old-time bioscience done in every shifting of the lights. How do you represent a trillion samples, and a billion trillion analyses? How can art deal with that?" (23.26)
This is Rabbit, so maybe he's just being a pain in the neck when he asks Robert this question. But maybe he has a point: with science and tech getting so complex (what are nano-fluidics and where can we get some?), where does art fit? Can Robert write poetry to capture the human condition when tech and culture are changing so much, and so fast?
"And now— " Juan grabbed for still greater import "—and now, ladies and gentlemen, the Orchestra of the Americas will perform their very own adaptation of Beethoven's EU Anthem, with lyrics by Orozco and Gu, and network synchrony by Gu and Orozco!" (33.92)
First, let's note that, like Robert's mysterious poetry, we never get to hear Juan's poem. How does that change your reading experience? (Frankly, we are curious what the poem is even about.) Second, even without knowing Juan's poem, we do like this project as a symbol of culture (music, poetry) coming together with technology (synching). This final project seems pretty "symbolic" of that type of collaboration.
"Imagine soft pinky robot hands, patiently picking over all the libraries and museums of the world. They'll be cross-checking, scanning for annotations—giving whole new generations of academic types like Zulfi Sharif something to hang their degrees on." (34.68)
This is Tommie imagining future Chinese scanning projects. We can't help but notice that Tommie (the techie) imagines that technology will lead the way and change culture. That is, we get scans and digital archives and then we get the academic papers and degrees. Is he right, do you think? Does technology lead culture?