Near-future sf is tricky business. It’s hard to spot the right trends, and it’s easy to over-estimate the pace of technological change. My past encounters with Vinge have been space operas tens of thousands of years in the future. In this entry, he switches gears and gives us a 2025 wherein pretty much every bit of preliminary research circa 2006 pays off to make a very different world. Today, if you watch your average thirty-something try to text, then watch your average twenty-something do the same, you’ll notice a pretty dramatic difference. That is a testimony to how quickly younger generations can adapt to new technological trends. On the other hand, we’re talking about texting here. I know there are people who think twitter solely responsible for the downfall of autocracies across the globe, but, in many ways, incredible advances in computing power and connectivity have led to only superficial changes in society. However, I come here not to judge Vinge as a futurist (I’m pretty sure he blows it, but I think that's been my verdict on every near-future novel after Stand on Zanzibar), but as a thrice-winner of the Hugo for best novel.
In Vinge’s future, there are “wearable” computers that plug people into global networks. You can interface visually through special contact lenses, and even overlay visuals onto the real world to create “augmented realities.” Vinge does a great job looking at some of the cultural implications of this. Many people live in fantasy worlds, from Discworld to MiddleEarth to RowlingSpielberg (I'm not sure I get the connection there) to the fictional bibliophilic fantasy world of Jerzy Hacek to the Pokemon-like Scooch-a-mout. Hackers can also control interfaces and hitchhike on users from worlds away. For a point of view character, Vinge uses a great new twist on Rip Van Winkle. Since 2010, famous poet Robert Gu has suffered from Alzheimers. A cure is administered, and Gu returns to this new world. He’s so far behind that he has to go back to high school, and there he hangs out with his granddaughter Miri, a boy named Juan Orozco, and a few fellow senior citizens. They all get roped into a massive international conspiracy involving the Great Powers and experimental mind control.
Mind control is an odd choice for Vinge. He used it in his last Hugo winner, and it’s also been popular in a few other sf entries (a lot of Whedon’s later material; hey, I just rewatched Serenity the same day I finished this novel). I guess it’s a natural outgrowth of our greater understanding of the human brain, and another way to look at issues of free will. I just think the timing is odd. I’d think the lesson of the ‘00s is not “beware new technology and mind control,” but rather “mind control isn’t necessary because people will still do extreme violent things for the old motivators: nationalism and religion.” Vinge does comment on this latter theme as well though – Vinge’s world is a place where weapons of mass destruction are far too easy to obtain, and even small extremist groups must be feared. Actually, now that I think about it, mind control is less of a theme in this novel, and more of a MacGuffin.
The setting is genuinely fun and intriguing, even if it is a bit hard to buy for less than two decades (I’ll be sure to post a retraction of this review in 2025 if I’m proved wrong). The characters are less exciting. There’s a good start with Robert Gu – he was a cruel but talented man before alzheimers, buy now it’s no longer clear if he is as cruel or as talented. That said, he’s still a cog in Vinge’s plot more than he’s an independent character – and he’s by far the most developed of them all. The rest of the characters fall very flat, and Vinge’s teenagers feel like adolescents. And there’s a particularly important character named Rabbit whose character is never really explained, and yet it’s also not as mysterious as it could have been as it seem to rely on an old cyberpunk trope (and the characters basically say as much). Rabbit is supposed to be a trickster character, but he’s not quite convincing or interesting enough. The plot is even worse than the characters. There’s the MacGuffin, and characters are manipulated by omnipotent hackers into running around looking for it. The entire second half of the book is a repetitive sequence in the UCSD library, that involves a lot of telling and not much showing. We’re back to what annoyed me so much about A Deepness in the Sky.
At least the library setting looks cool and science fictiony:
There’s also something very farcical about the plot – this novel actually feels like Vinge trying to write a Neal Stephenson-style action-comedy, and the book is poorer for the comparison. The humor is more forced than Stephenson’s, the action’s duller, and the ideas just aren’t as sharp or interesting. I’ve also mentioned accessibility issues with the past two Vinge winners. In the ‘00s as a whole, the Hugos have gone to books pitched at broader audiences than ever before…but this is the exception. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone not very well versed in sf ideas.
There’s a solid start here, especially with Gu and the wearables, but I wasn’t as engrossed by the final product as I could have been.