"You live in a time that thinks it can ignore the human condition," says an older character to a younger one in Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, which netted its author his fifth Hugo. This, in a nutshell, is one of the cautionary themes in this brilliant story set in the same near-future as Vinge's Hugo-winning novella "Fast Times at Fairmont High".
Rainbows End (no, there's no apostrophe) is not a Singularitarian novel. In some ways, it reads as a riposte to some of the technotopian visions imagined by the more ardent followers of the transhumanist and extropian movements that eagerly embraced Vinge's concepts. It also quite handily reframes many ideas bandied about by the 80's cyberpunks. In Vinge's 2020's, the world may not be governed by (take your pick) a benevolent/evil AI. But here we have a future where the evolution of the Internet into an even more pervasive and invasive social, political, and economic phenomenon has forever changed life just as decisively. Wearing computers is the norm here, their owners permanently logged into their VPN's, firing silent instant messages back and forth to friends and family or members of their chosen clique, or "belief circle". With contact lenses that overlay what the wearer sees with skins that redress the environment to your taste — for gamers, imagine World of Warcraft reconfigured as some kind of VR LARPing experience — it's no wonder entertainment conglomerates are even more vast and influential than they are now. Where walking around with your brain jacked into some "net" made you an edgy rebel in the cyberpunk lexicon, in Rainbows End you're just another consumer.
But this all-encompassing technology has made both personal and national security a headache beyond the worst-case ravings of conspiracy theorists. Anyone from pranksters to outright terrorists can corrupt and piggyback on individual systems. In every nation, governments and their security branches have all they can do to stay one step ahead of terror capabilities unimagined two decades before. The biggest fear is the successful development of YGBM, or "You Gotta Believe Me" technology, which could lead to something quite like mind control. Annoying enough if advertisers get their hands on it, but in the hands of terrorists (or worse, corrupt governments) almost unthinkable. Again, we're not watching a Terminator/Matrix future where technology is evil. It's one where technology has simply given plain old ordinary human evil more leeway to be creative.
Vinge also challenges the transhumanist dream of radical life extension, not dismissing it so much as pointing out that it too would entail challenges and consequences to be overcome. The novel's protagonist is Robert Gu, formerly a poet laureate and great man of letters, felled by Alzheimer's. A successful series of revolutionary treatments not only cures Robert of the disease, but restores much of his body to a youthful vigor. He has what everyone dreams of, a second chance. But immediately there are problems. The cure has robbed him of his great gift. And even had it not, it's hard to imagine how Robert's literary magic would find a place in a world where nothing is of any value if it can't be reduced to raw data. A project at the UCSD library to shred all of its books using tech that will digitally archive the material in the books while they're being destroyed is Vinge's sardonic masterstroke, reflecting a masturbatory love of technology for its own sake that misses the point of what we love books for. This is a time that thinks it can ignore the human condition.
Robert, and others of his generation, find their lives renewed but their time passed. They have nothing to contribute to this frenetic future unless they adapt, and quickly. This literally involves going back to high school. Robert, always narcissistic and arrogant, becomes even more abusive to those around him. He's a burden to his son's family. And when he's contacted by a secretive individual who promises him he can have his artistic gifts restored, his ego demands he jump at the chance. The plan involves breaking in to one of the research labs at USCD. Robert joins a group of folks — which includes a former professional rival — already planning to stage such a break-in in order to mess up the book-shredding program. But what Robert doesn't know is that he and his cohorts are just pawns in a bigger scheme.
The plot is deliciously intricate, and it's all I can do to hold back from spoiling its more exciting treats and colorful characters. Rainbows End is a feverishly entertaining next-gen tech thriller, centered on a protagonist who undergoes a character arc that, while it may follow a fairly conventional "redemption" blueprint, brings genuine warmth and heart to a future setting in which both are in short supply. But even a redeemed character finds it hard to let go of his most unrealistic hopes. It's a basic human dream to have it all, but you can't. Religion promises it, politicians promise it, consumerism promises it, the wildest futurist dreams of transhumanism promise it. And even if you're happy with who you are, there is still that yearning. But being happy with who you are sometimes has to be enough. You can't have it all. That's what sucks about rainbows. They end. The human condition is about making the most of their beauty while they last.