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Vinge's Singular Vision

Cyberfiction’s founder returns with a preview of our virtual future.

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.

The setting for Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End is the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego. Vinge taught math and computer science at San Diego State University for almost 30 years. (Courtesy of UCSD Publications Office)

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.

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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.)

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.

Rainbows End
By Vernor Vinge
Tor, 2006, $25.95

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