Study Guide

Rainbows End Themes

By Vernor Vinge

  • Technology and Modernization

    The technology in Rainbows End is pretty much what's coming for us in the next few years-to-decades: self-driving cars, wearable computers (like Google Glass), internet everywhere, and (fingers crossed) cures for old-people diseases.

    But these gadgets aren't just cool guesses about what the future will be like; all that tech causes some pretty big changes in the way people live their lives, from houses without books to old people going back to high school. This isn't to say that all that tech is good. Some of the same tech that leads to miracle cures could also lead to miracle epidemics.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. What technology (or -gies) in the book is most important to the plot? Is there any tech here that's just in the background?
    2. Does technology ever fail the characters here? When/how?
    3. How does technology interact with the other themes here, like "Art/Culture" and "Old Age"? Do we get a sense of character's "identity" because of how they deal with technology?
    4. Is there any old technology that is still useful in the future in this book?

    Chew on This

    Rainbows End shows us that technology will never be more important than people.

    Technology in Rainbows End is close to what we have now, but is leading towards something radically different (like Rabbit).

  • Manipulation

    In Rainbows End, it's hard to find people who aren't manipulating each other, even if they're manipulating each other for altruistic reasons.

    Miri is totally manipulating Robert Gu, but she's doing so to help him get more used to the future world. And in order to do that, she has to manipulate Zulfikar Sharif into interviewing him; and she has to recruit Juan into teaching him; and she has to get Lena and Xiu to cooperate.

    Or take Alfred: he just wants to save the world, so he has to manipulate Braun and Mitsuri so they don't discover his plan; and he has to manipulate Rabbit, etc. Even Louise Chumlig manipulates Juan and Robert into working together. It seems like manipulation is a part of most relationships.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Are there any characters that do more manipulating than others? Are there characters that are better at manipulating than others? Is there anything that connects the best manipulators?
    2. Does Rainbows End teach us how to manipulate people in our current world? Or is most of the manipulation technological?
    3. Who is best at spotting manipulation? Rabbit? Robert? Someone else with a similar name? What makes them so good at spotting manipulation?
    4. How do the characters respond when they realize they're being manipulated?

    Chew on This

    In Rainbows End, manipulation is like any other tool or technology: it can be used for good or evil.

    People are only open to manipulation when they have selfish goals in Rainbows End.

  • Old Age

    If you're like us, you've read lots of YA books where young heroes and heroines fight the old people in charge to figure out who they are. So it can be a shock to pick up Rainbows End, where just about everyone is a senior citizen: Robert, Xiu, Lena, and even Alfred Vaz are all eligible for the senior discount.

    But in the future, being old doesn't mean you're eating dinner at five p.m. All of these seniors are active—and they face a fight that would fit right in with many a YA book: they have to figure out where they fit in a world that doesn't quite welcome them.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. There are a lot of old characters, but they aren't all old in the same way. (Thanks, medical miracles.) How many different types of "getting old" does Rainbows End show us?
    2. Are there any benefits to old age in Rainbows End?
    3. Many of our major characters are old. But what about the youngsters, Miri and Juan? Do they face a similar struggle as the oldsters? What about the adultsters like Alice and Bob?
    4. How do you relate to the oldster characters in Rainbows End? Are they very different from you? Or do they have some identifiable issues?

    Chew on This

    Rainbows End demonstrates how memories may be both the valuable thing and a trap that we sometimes have to escape.

    In the future, the generation gap will get bigger and bigger because old people won't keep up with technology. We'll have thirty-year-olds forced into retirement.

  • Language and Communication

    In Rainbows End, there are many ways to communicate—though these ways don't always work out. Communication is very tied to "technology." And we don't just mean, "people use technology to silent message each other."

    We mean that books are a type of technology for communication, and word-of-mouth is a type of technology for communication. When some form of communication technology fails in Rainbows End, there's usually some other form to take its place: when people can't IM each other, they can sometimes just talk. But since there's a spy story and a family drama going on here, a lot of tension comes from the secrets people aren't communicating. However, as we see in the book, it's hard to keep secrets totally secret when there are so many forms of communication.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Is there a best (or better) form of communication in Rainbows End? Is talking better than sm'ing?
    2. When does communication break down? Is it because of technological failures or because of secrets and manipulations?
    3. Are there any characters who are particularly good at communicating? Are these the same characters who are good at "manipulating"? Is there a connection between communicating and manipulating?
    4. This story involves a German man, an Indian man (with a Portuguese last name, Vaz), and a Japanese woman manipulating a family of Chinese-Americans. So why doesn't language play a bigger role here? Or are there lots of language issues that are important (like Miri talking with her Chinese friend and Carlos Rivera getting JITT-stuck in Mandarin)?

    Chew on This

    True communication is impossible in Rainbows End.

    Communication is all about passing information between people and information tends to find ways to get around censorship and embargo. In other words, communication can never be stopped, but will always come out.

  • Literature and Writing

    Nothing matters to Robert as much as his poetry—which he can no longer make. If he's sad about not being able to make poetry, then he's going to make everyone else around him miserable too. (See: "The Ezra Pound Incident.")

    He'll betray any person or cause to get what he wants. Ironically (or just plain sadly), Robert is one of the few people in Rainbows End who cares about his poetry. People still read in the future, but books have merged into the virtual sphere. That is, a really successful and beloved book probably has a whole group of fans that recreate that world online. In the future, books aren't just on the page anymore.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Besides Robert, who else cares about literature or reading in this book? Do we see any other characters reading in this book?
    2. Do Robert's feelings about writing change much over the course of the book? How much do they change and why?
    3. Besides poetry, what other types of literature do we hear about or see in this book? Do people have different feelings or ideas about different types of literature?
    4. We never get to hear any of Robert's genius poetry. Why do you think that is? How do we know that it's genius?
    5. If fans made a virtual world based on Robert's poetry, what do you think that would look like?

    Chew on This

    At first, Robert misses the way that books and information have become more important in the future because he only focuses on his own interests: poetry and physical books.

    Although Robert says that there are certain experiences that cannot be written about them, the book demonstrates that any experience can be written about.

  • Power

    There are lots of struggles for power going on in Rainbows End, starting with Alfred's struggle to mind control the world, and going all the way down to Robert's struggle to dominate his family. (Spoiler alert: neither succeeds. Yay!)

    But power isn't always about some old guy (like Alfred or Robert) asserting his will on others; a lot of this book is about how power is distributed among many people or about how the "less powerful" resist the systems of power that they are caught by. Power in Rainbows End is often a question of the technology that people are using.

    Questions About Power

    1. What do the characters here want to do with the power they get? Alfred says he wants to save the world, but how does he plan on doing that? And do you trust him? What about Winston Blount or Tommie Parker?
    2. Are there any connection/similarities to be drawn between the people who are most interested in power? Are they all old? Are they all men?
    3. Technology seems to be a major source of power in this book, but are there other sources of power? What about manipulation? Or social power within a community?
    4. Does power in our world resemble power in the world of Rainbows End?
    5. What's the best form of power in this book? What's the best use of power?

    Chew on This

    In Rainbows End, power always needs to be tested by resistance. That's the only way to tell "good power" from "bad power."

    Power in Rainbows End is often on the side of the big institutions that don't want things to change. That's why power can never be trusted.

  • Community

    Community is a loose idea in Rainbows End, usually defined as a group of people you have something in common with. So there's family-community, though as we see with Robert and his family, this is a type of community that can fall apart. (If your ex-wife fakes her death to get away from you, you might want to reconsider how you're acting in the community.)

    But there are also friendships, both local (Miri-Juan) and distant (Miri-Jin). And then, perhaps most interestingly, there are the belief circles: fans of some particular work. These belief circles might add to the world of their favorite book/movie/game. In that way, community isn't just the people you have something in common with; it's the people you contribute with.

    Questions About Community

    1. How does technology change the way communities are formed?
    2. Besides family, friendship, and belief circles, what other types of communities do we see in this book?
    3. How do different communities interact in this book? Besides the big rumble over the library, how do different belief circles interact?
    4. What does a good community provide to its members? What does a bad community take from its members?
    5. What about bigger communities, like the nation—do we see lots of country-level communities in this book? Are there any communities that are global in scope?

    Chew on This

    The strongest communities in Rainbows End are the communities where everyone is equal and contributes equally.

    Robert only changes his identity when he loses all of his old communities—because identity comes from community.

  • Identity

    In Rainbows End, identity is often about "power" and ability: in some sense, you are what you can do. Here, identity comes in two unique flavors: a) Who is Robert Gu now that he's back from the dead? Is he still a jerk? What is he if he can't write poetry anymore? b) In a virtual world, are you who you say you are? (As the saying goes, "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog.") And do you have the "power" and the skill to do what you say you can do?

    So we get questions like "Who is Rabbit?" and "Is Sharif really Sharif?"

    Questions About Identity

    1. There are lots of issues about identity that don't seem that important in this book. For instance, race, gender, and even social class don't come up a lot. How does it change your reading if these issues aren't important in the future?
    2. The oldsters who have come back struggle with what identity they have in this world. How do different oldster characters deal with that issue of identity? If they try to get back their old identities, how do they do that?
    3. What struggles for identity do the young people face in this book? (You know, the few young people there are.) How similar are the struggles of the young and the struggles of the old?
    4. What's most important to Robert's identity besides his poetry? What's most important to Miri?
    5. How do relationships and community affect character's identities?

    Chew on This

    In Rainbows End, identity is all about one's wants and whether one has the power to get those wants met.

    Although identity seems to be tied up with power, the most important aspect of identity is actually caring for others.

  • Change

    Change depends a lot on the eye of the beholder: if you liked the old way, then change is a terrible thing; but if the old way was only okay, then change can be pretty good. No matter how characters feel about it in Rainbows End, change is going to happen.

    Take Robert for example: his body changes (from old to young-seeming), his mind changes (from poetic and mathematical), and he has to face a totally changed world. Well, not totally new: despite all the new technology (and all the social change that comes from that), there are many things about the world of 2025 that might seem familiar to us, like scheming spies and family tension.

    Questions About Change

    1. Robert probably faces the most change; how does he deal with it? Who else has to deal with change and how do they do it? Is there a best way to deal with change?
    2. Are there any physical things that don't change—or that only change a little bit? For instance, how different are future cars? What about the Gus' ping-pong table? The Geisel Library? The steam tunnels? Does it matter if some things don't change?
    3. Are there changes in this book that seem like changes going on in our world? Are these good or bad changes? Put another way: are there changes in this book that you want to see or avoid in the real world?
    4. How do different communities react to change? Do all the spies react the same way? Do all the oldsters?

    Chew on This

    In Rainbows End, change is part of life that can't be dismissed or planned for or resisted.

    All change comes from technology in Rainbows End.

  • Art and Culture

    Culture in Rainbows End often relies on or is shaped by technology; and even forms of culture that aren't changed themselves still are surrounded by new tech. For instance, take soccer, which is a very old game; but the first time we see it, we hear about how the advertising is old-fashioned (Prologue.12)—except for the mind control experiment that someone is running.

    The second time we see soccer it's being played in a strange variation called Egan soccer that involves a lot of probabilities. Because Robert is focused on "literature," he doesn't recognize that art and culture are all around in some form or other. After all, one of the big subplots involves the "community"—constructed virtual worlds that the belief circles make (which are often inspired by books).

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Are different forms of culture more or less valuable in this book? Do any of the characters think there are better forms of culture?
    2. Are there forms of culture that aren't covered by the book? Sports? Painting? Music? Are all these different types of culture present in video games in the future?
    3. How does culture get made in this book? Is it individual-made or "community"-made or both? How does culture change?
    4. How do different characters approach the issue of culture?

    Chew on This

    In Rainbows End, culture is less important than technology and power.

    Rainbows End demonstrates that culture is what makes us human.