National-security analysis, in Rainbows End, is conducted by free-floating swarms of analysts who can generate and sift a thousand conjectures simultaneously but can also collapse into procedural dispute. Surveillance is done competently by obsessive hobbyists. Military action consists mainly of signals intelligence.
Vinge has a high old time with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy.
Of course, the fate of everything is at stake. The world is in a permanent state of dread that some evildoer might convert one of the innumerable new cyber- and bio- and cogno- and nanotools into a weapon of annihilation. Even the coolest new technologies are beset with problems. Yes, you can absorb a skill like a new language with “just-in-time training,” but the process is so immersive you might get permanently stuck in it. Yes, you can live a lot longer, but different ailments are differentially susceptible to cure, and some people are more fully rejuvenated than others.
Fantasy fandom is a huge force in Vinge’s world, where massively multiplayer games are the dominant entertainment medium, and the legions of enthusiasts in “belief circles” can not only project their fantasies onto the increasingly attenuated fabric of the real world but pit their fictional worlds against each other in epistemological combat. Heroic figures like Dangerous Knowledge and Librarians Militant (both from a Terry Pratchett-like fantasy domain) and the Greater Scooch-a-mout and Mind Sum (from a Pokémon-like franchise) duke it out in front of a real library and an online flash crowd of millions.
Vinge’s technological speculations are among the book’s chief pleasures. His professional association with the Internet, which dates to its beginning, allows him to make some interesting proposals. How about a “Secure Hardware Environment” as the deeply reliable and unhackable foundation of everything online and virtual? How about “certificate authorities” that offer people
the option of accountability amid the blizzard of faux personalities lashing through cyberspace?
See Vinge rejoice in the nuances of a network decaying toward breakdown:
The network problems were getting a lot worse. There were strange latencies, maybe real partitions. Blocks of the virtual audience were being run on cache. Single-hop still mostly worked, but routed communication was in trouble. Huynh stepped a few feet to the side and managed to find a good diagnostic source. There were certificate failures at the lowest levels. He had never seen that before. Even the localizer mesh was failing. Like the holes in a threadbare carpet, splotches of plain reality grew around him.
The most intriguing character in Rainbows End is its hidden hero, the enigmatic figure Rabbit, a faux being whose puissance is matched by his juvenile humor. Is he an artificial intelligence? If so, what does that portend? Happily, Vinge is planning a sequel that will explore the matter further.
Stewart Brand was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a cofounder of the WELL, Global Business Network, and the Long Now Foundation.
By Vernor Vinge
Tor, 2006, $25.95