Can’t get there from here…

[yes, I will be returning to “Seconderth”… soon, I promise]

Back in August at SLCC10, Pathfinder (John Lester) gave a keynote speech wherein he invoked not only Watership Down, but a novel by Vernor Vinge titled Rainbows End.  Two days ago, I finally got up off my procrastinating tush and went next door to the library, in hope that their copy was on the shelf.  It was.

I read a tad more than half of it that night, and finished it yesterday… and I wonder now what the fuss was about.  Mind you, I love Vinge’s stuff.  A Fire on the Deep was excellent, with its concept that the laws of physics are not isotropic, but depend on mass-density (interaction with the Higgs field, maybe?  he didn’t say…), and its convincing hive-mind aliens with their feudal culture.  Rainbows End is a good story, don’t get me wrong — it won a Hugo in its first year of eligibility (2007), after all — but, inspiration for a future we should be aiming toward?  Eh…

If the loose aggregation of near-future fiction in which the control and manipulation of information, a.k.a. data, is a major plot device — that is, “cyberpunk” — had a bright side, Rainbows End would be there.  Its backdrop is a world where you don’t have to deliberately log in to an immersive virtual environment; instead, you can create one around you, and/or share a consensus virtuality overlaid on the physical.  You can also participate in near-synchronous global collaborations… seemingly, almost everyone does.  All of this, and much more, is enabled through a wireless network where every living human seems to be a node, supplemented by what can only be billions of manufactured ones embedded in everything, including the ground.  Oh, and the personal computers people use to access and contribute are clothing.  Vinge doesn’t use the pun (which surprises me; he’s good at them), but it does sort-of turn hardware into “softwear”.

Let me put it another way, for my fellow Second Life/InWorldz/OpenSim/etc. avatars:  It would resemble physically being your avvie, and bringing your favorite virtual world(s) out of the computer screen and into your immediate surroundings, with all of the global communication inherent in the system (including IMs, which Vinge calls “sm” for “silent messages”).  No flying or teleporting, sorry — but telepresence of the same quality: walk the streets of another city on a different part of the planet, with sounds and sights supplied in realtime by the ubiquitous, constantly morphing network.  Only thing I can think of that beats it for immersivity is a holodeck.

Now then…

I’ve been reading science-fiction for more than five decades.  I’m a dab hand at Suspension of Disbelief, and of accepting the standard memes of the literature, some of which are much older than I am — time travel, for instance, or faster-than-light spacecraft, even though my rational brain insists that Einstein was right, and c isn’t just a good idea, it’s The Law.  As long as a set-up is internally consistent (and the author’s not pulling a Star Trek) I’m along for the ride.  But, when the plausibility begins to resemble Jarlsberg — that’s like Swiss, but with lots of tiny holes instead of a few big ones — Disbelief’s suspension starts to rattle and squeak, and doesn’t take the turns too well.

Near-future fiction is particularly susceptible to holey-cheese-itis, and when actual dates are given in the story, those holes start to look like quantum foam.  Worst-case example:  How long ago was 2001?  Never mind the monoliths; did we have anything like a double-pinwheel space station in orbit nine years ago, let alone commercial flights to it, permanent bases on the Moon, or anything even vaguely resembling HAL?

2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, when its title year was “safely” 33 years ahead — a third of a century! That same year, Apollo 8 took a loop around the Moon for Christmas, and it actually looked possible that some dreams with roots in the 1950s might come true by the turn of the century.  Then politicians and bean-counters decided differently, and the last footsteps were made on the Moon in December 1972.

Rainbows End takes place in 2025.  Are we only 15 years away from the kind of world envisioned in it?  Serious doubts cloud my mind… and they’re made no better by some other cheesy holes in the backstory.  The big one: Some time in 2014, Chicago gets nuked.  By whom, for what reason, isn’t explained — it’s a toss-off, “Oh by the way…”  Remember what an economic disruption September 11, 2001 turned into?  How much larger an impact might the radioactive wasting of the US’s third-or-fourth largest metro area have, do you think?

And yet, the economy in the world of Rainbows End is humming right along, turning out computers woven into clothing, the electronically-augmented contact lenses to go with those, and (second-most ubiquitous feature of Vinge’s world) automated cars that nobody seems to own but anyone can just get into and tell it to go somewhere… and a host of other gadgets and do-dads that nobody seems to have any trouble affording, and are made… where?  By whom? How are they paid for?

Tor Books published Vinge’s Rainbows End in 2006.  The global economy tanked two years later, and shows little sign of recovery now. Ask Sir Arthur C.: the corollary to “Shit happens” is “Sometimes, shit doesn’t happen.”

Science fiction is only “prophetic” in hindsight.  When it deliberately tries to be predictive, it almost always falls on its face.*  The closer the fictional future is (in time) to the real present, the less likely that future will occur when forecast… if at all.

In fact, science fiction is not “about The Future”.  It usually takes place in a future, often with (hopefully) plausible extrapolations of current trends as backdrop.  But science fiction is “about” the same thing that all other fiction is: human interaction, and the change and growth of personality.

There’s a good human story in Rainbows End.  The rest — the stuff Pathfinder got all excited about — is set design.  Cleverly painted flats, with nothing behind them but the occasional stagehand and the props table.  Sure, it would be really cool to have those shiny gadgets and do all those amazing things with them — but by the time I finished reading the book, I did not want to live in that world.

* – For a real laugh, check out these predictive whoppers from Mr. Singularity himself, Ray Kurzweil. Sometimes, science fiction is disguised as fictional science.



3 responses to “Can’t get there from here…

  1. Hey Lalo, I followed up on Path's keynote and I am reading Rainbows End, too, almost done. Great explanation of some of the cool aspects of it, and I like how you put the novel in the wider context of science fiction.

  2. Thanks, Prof :)

    I hope I didn't seem too down on the story itself… I enjoyed it. However, I got the feeling that it was longer when submitted to Tor, and a lot of what I feel would have made the world more solid was left “on the cutting room floor,” as they say about film.

    The Hugo (for those who may not know) is awarded by the voting members of the World Science Fiction Convention — i.e., the fans. The Nebula Award is given annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America — i.e., the authors' peers. Interestingly enough, none of the novels nominated for the 2007 Hugo, including Rainbows End, were on the 2007 Nebula ballot, and vice-versa.

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