Vernor Vinge dedicates his new novel, Rainbows End, “To the Internet-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives – Wikipedia, Google, eBay, and the others of their kind, now and in the future.” The book is an imagining of how those technologies might develop over the next two decades. But publication of Rainbows End is not only a literary event. The question arises, “Will Vinge influence the actual evolution of the technology?” He has done so before.
Many coders and system designers, as well as those who market their work, read science fiction for ideas as well as entertainment. A few fictional ideas gain such currency that they affect the real world. In 1984, the “cyberspace” of William Gibson’s Neuromancer inspired a generation of early netheads as they imagined the “consensual hallucination” (to use Gibson’s phrase) that became the World Wide Web. Equally, Neal Stephenson’s “Metaverse,” the massively shared virtual reality in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, helped lead to multiplayer worlds such as Second Life.
But the earliest fictional evocation of an immersive virtual world came back in 1981 with Vernor Vinge’s novella “True Names,” in which the secretly powerful alternate reality was called “the Other Plane.” By 1995 Kevin Kelly would observe in Wired magazine, “Many Net veterans cite True Names as a seminal influence that shaped their ideas about Net policy. … It became a cult classic among hackers and presaged everything from Internet interactive games to Neuromancer.” In 1984 and 1986, Vinge struck again. With a pair of novels later published together as Across Realtime, Vinge proposed that technological progress would soon accelerate to a spike of such intense change that on the other side of it, humanity would be unrecognizable. His description of that metamorphosis, which he dubbed “the Singularity,” has since guided many visions of 21st-century technology.
In a departure from Vinge’s recent heavy-duty space operas, the Hugo Award winners A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, Rainbows End is short. It’s a picaresque of sorts, set in the 2025 San Diego first explored in Vinge’s 2002 story “Fast Times at Fairmont High.” In the book, everybody’s real world is draped with arrays of private and shared virtual realities, and “Search and Analysis” is the core skill taught to the young and the rejuvenated old as “the heart of the economy.” It turns out that the crux of a Search and Analysis world (and of Vinge’s narrative) is this: who knows what, and how, and how is their knowing displayed or cloaked?
Setting the story in the near future lets Vinge build on his own real-world career teaching math and computer science at San Diego State University, as well as consulting for commercial and government organizations and writing science fiction. The novel teases and advises all those communities.
Setting the plot in motion, ultranetworked spies discover that a project for subtle, targeted mind control is under way in a fortresslike bioscience lab on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. And so this university tale features steam tunnel adventures, an extravagantly exploited graduate student, and lifelong academic vendettas (a downside of life extension). Google’s current Book Search project is both praised and satirized. Why shouldn’t humanity’s entire intellectual past be as indexed, organized, linked, and searchable as information that was digital from its creation? Too bad the books themselves are destroyed as they are scanned. (The real Google is more careful.)