A close friend recently gave me Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbows End”; in case you wonder about the spelling, there’s a chapter called “the missing apostrophe”. The book’s subtitle is “a novel with one foot in the future”, and as with most science-fiction, the foot in the present is the one that matters most.Vinge introduces his reader to a not-too-distant future (2025). To build it, he does not need to break any laws of physics — (almost) all he describes is built on some plausible and incremental advances over today’s technological state of the art, and then some choices that societies might make (or rather, are making) about dealing with it. This world is, in some ways, post-apocalyptic: The next big California quake is a thing of the past, and (though the reader isn’t bothered with the details) it’s a great success that no major city has been lost for five years. 9/11 is really just a prelude to this world. Weapons of mass destruction are available to “anyone who has a bad hair day”, and so this future is one of surveillance and an almost almighty security apparatus. Constraints on technology paired with surveillance are not just a matter of the Great Powers, though: Ubiquitous wearable computing comes with the possibility to subvert others’ wearable computers; and there is broad and wide information sharing and use. Forget privacy. Also, right holders’ wildest dreams seem to have come true: Microroyalty payments are built into the infrastructures.How does one live in that society? Writes Vinge:
In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.
The society that we encounter in this book, then, is focusing on all things creative and playful — though some of that gets across as shallow, in particular to Robert Gu, one of the book’s main characters, who has “lost his marbles” when returning from a decade of Alzheimer after application of a successful cure; meaning that he’s lost both his world-class poetic talent and the ability to hit people where it hurts them most. In the cast of characters, Robert is joined by his grand-daughter Miri, his son Bob, and his dauther-in-law Alice — along with the somewhat obscure (but key) Rabbit, and a number of security aparatchiks.With the novel’s always interesting and at times scarily plausible future society as a backdrop, these players engage into a tangled game of manipulation, hacks, and adventures, with nothing less at stake than freedom of thought. That story itself makes for an amusing and good read. It’s merely serving as a tool, though, to explore the consequences of technological and social choices that we face today.Overall, an excellent book, and a thought-provoking read.Update 2007-11-29: The book is available as a free download now. (via BoingBoing)