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Issue #129 - May 2006

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What's New, Doc?

By Cheryl Morgan

The security heads of Europe, India and Japan looked at each other and, by some unspoken agreement, the man from India spoke.

"We have reason to believe that the weapons the Americans are developing in those labs will pose a major threat to entire planet. Your mission, Mr. Rabbit, should you choose to accept it, is to get us in there undetected. Give us enough time to download their databanks so we can see what they are doing and develop countermeasures. They have to be stopped."

Well, it didn’t quite happen like that. I made that up. But it might well have done. Infiltrating and taking over America’s most top secret biotechnology labs for a few hours does sound like the sort of thing that the Mission Impossible team might take on. Except instead of Jim Phelps you have to imagine a fellow who projects himself in cyberspace as a very dapper but distinctly irreverent jack rabbit. A rabbit that is about to save the world.

Vernor Vinge’s new novel is not, in any shape or form, a follow-up to his Hugo-winning classics, A Fire on the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. It is a very different pot of carrots indeed. To start with it is set less than 20 years into the future. It is also rather more of a comedy than Vinge normally produces. But that doesn’t mean to say that there’s no interesting speculation behind it. Vinge, after all, makes much of his living as a professional futurologist. It is his job to think about what the world will be like in 20 years time. Rainbows End is, at least in part, based on those speculations.

Remember what I said last month about 21st Century SF being about the end of the American Economic Empire and about biotechnology? Here’s another one. The America of Rainbows End is by no means finished, but it exists in a world where countries like India and China are major economic and political powers. And the threat that Mr. Rabbit is called in to investigate is spread by an artificial virus. Most of Vinge’s speculation, however, is centered around computing, the Internet, and their impact on society.

In this new world, of course, America has to be less isolationist. Vinge recognizes that by 2025 soccer will be the country’s favorite sport. Unfortunately he doesn’t know much about the game himself. But his life should be safe as long as he doesn’t plan on visiting Greece any time soon. Or eating in a Greek restaurant.

Thankfully the embarrassment ends with the prolog, after which Vinge is on firmer ground. Computers, he says, will be wearable. They will be controlled by gestures, and perhaps even by thoughts. User interfaces will be fantastically elaborate. Junior school kids will be able to create multi-media presentations of such breathtaking complexity as to make today’s movies look like the Flintstones’ car next to a Ferrari. But none of them will be able to spell, or indeed string a coherent sentence together.

Our hero (other than the rabbit) is one Robert Gu. He is one of the lucky ones for whom the new science of regeneration actually works. To look at him he might pass for seventeen, but he’s a lot older than that and is slowly recovering from Alzheimers. You can tell he isn’t a real high school kid, because the poor old duffer still needs a keyboard and mouse. His teachers have given him a simulation of something called Windows to use on his computer. The kids treat him with withering scorn.

This doesn’t go down well with Robert, who used to be an English professor and one of the world’s foremost poets. The trouble is, no one values poetry any more. Not if it doesn’t have animated graphics anyway. And before long Robert will have to earn a living. His ex-wife is dead, his son and daughter-in-law can’t stand him, and none of his old friends have got in touch, probably because he didn’t have any friends. Robert Gu, we quickly learn, was most famous for being a poet, and almost as famous for being a complete bastard. The only person prepared to give him a chance, and a bit of help with his education, is his granddaughter, Miri.

He had to put them on every morning and then wear them all day. There were constant twinkles and flashes in his eyes. But with practice, he got control of that. He felt a moment of pure joy the first time he managed to type a query on a phantom keyboard and view the Google response floating in the air before him… There was a feeling of power in being able to draw answers out of thin air.

But what does all this have to do with Mr. Rabbit and saving the world from evil American biotech? Well, to start with Robert’s son is a Colonel in the US Marines and his wife is a top security agent. They happen to live in San Diego, where the biotech labs are. In addition, Robert is part of Mr. Rabbit’s plan for a distraction. You see, the University of San Diego is in the forefront of an exciting new development in library technology. The dashing entrepreneur, Max Huertas, has invented a process that can digitize an entire library in a matter of hours. The books do get shredded in the process, but the library is left with an (almost) perfect digital record of their contents. I mean, who needs musty old books anyway? They are so 20th Century. UCSD is about to become the pilot site for this new process, and the protest movement is being led by a bunch of crusty old professors. Robert Gu is an ideal recruit to the cause.

Winnie glowered at the young man. "Mr. Sharif, you don’t understand the purpose of stacks. You don’t go into the stacks expecting the precise answer to your burning-question-of-the-moment. It doesn’t work that way. In all the thousands of times that I’ve gone hunting in the stacks, I’ve seldom found exactly what I was looking for. You know what I did find? I found books on close-by topics. I found answers to questions that I had never thought to ask. Those answers took me in new directions and were almost always more valuable than whatever I originally had in mind."

Vinge knows enough about search algorithms to know that you can reproduce effects like this with a digital library as well, so we have to assume that he’s simply constructing a plausible argument such as Dean Blount, who is not the smartest cookie in the book, might present to Sharif, who is spectacularly dim. Vinge does, however, have a lot of fun satirizing the whole digital library fuss, and he has even more fun when he gets to the political conflict that the library plan precipitates.

It is at this point that Vinge introduces the concept of a ‘belief circle’. This isn’t a term he has invented. It has been used for some time to describe people like UFOlogists and other small groups whose view of the world is decidedly non-standard. It is, however, an idea that Vinge makes his own, and also one that will, I think, have increasing social significance in the years to come.

If you read Karl Schroeder’s excellent Lady of Mazes from last year you may remember that Schroeder’s world includes a VR system where different social groups with different values are able to tailor the world so they can see it the way they want to. Vinge’s belief circles are the first step on the road to such a world.

Because Rainbows End is at least in part a comedy, Vinge presents a particularly amusing view of belief circles. The argument over the library digitization quickly becomes a dispute between two belief circles. The first group, who are pro-digitization, are fans of the work of Jerzy Hacek, the successor to Terry Pratchett as the king of comic fantasy. Hacek’s books are set in the world that feature the Library Militant, a sort of cross between a medieval library and an order of religious knights. The Hacek fans support digitization because the university has promised to base the new virtual library on Hacek’s work.

The other side are followers of the Scoochis, characters from a children’s cartoon series that may have been created by Dr. Seuss, or at least his inheritors. They are, of course, incurably cute, and being pro-environment they are pro-real-books too,

From Vinge’s point of view this is all a good excuse for Mr. Rabbit to engineer a very amusing diversion while he arranges for a raid on the biotech labs. It is all good fun, but I rather wish he’d spent more time examining the sociology. It is becoming clear to me that belief circles are going to be rather more important than the comedy side show he presents. In a world in which news provision is democratized via the Internet, and in which the news media increasingly see their job as entertainment, people are going to end up choosing what they want to believe.

When I was a kid in the UK there was one reliable source of news: the BBC. Because they had a government-sponsored monopoly, they worked hard at being impartial. But with multiple news outlets, each dependent on keeping an audience to get revenue, what you get is segmentation of the market. The media cater to specific belief circles, and the audience chooses which news outlet to follow based on whether or not it presents the news according to their own particular biases. Given the choice between a complex argument with no "right answer", and a simple report presenting one side in a conflict as "good" and the other as "evil", most people, it seems, will choose the latter. And this is how belief circles grow.

Vinge, as I have said, doesn’t go much into philosophical speculation, but he clearly thought a lot about the way the world is going before writing Rainbows End. Consequently you end up thinking about issues like this when you read the book. So there it is: an SF novel that makes you laugh and makes you think. Sounds like a winner to me.

Rainbows End - Vernor Vinge - Tor - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee