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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge

Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-312-85684-7

What a great SciFi thriller this is! I've only (to the best of my recollection) ever read one Vernor Vinge novel before, and while it was good, this one is superlative! Genre? I'd have to call it cyberpunk influenced, for sure, since it takes place in the not too distant future when today's experiments in virtual reality, Internet search engines and the like, have very definitely been taken to the next level.

Pretty much everyone “wears,” which means they have their computers built into their clothing or person, controlled by gestures, movements of the eyes, and so forth. Diseases of the old are being cured, and our primary character is a once-famous, but very hard to get along with, geezer of a poet, who had lost his marbles to Alzheimer's, but has just been brought back to his senses.

But technology has passed him by. Not just him, but a lot of people from his generation. So he's back in a kind of high school, trying to learn what he needs to know to function in this completely wired society.

Librarians currently (today, in the real world, not in this book) dither over the Google book-scanning project. Is it a good thing or not? Google is a money-making operation, after all. Do we really want to put the future of our library collections into the hands of a commercial operation?

Well, that's nothing compared to the future that Vinge imagines. In Rainbow's End, a good deal of the action centers around the plan of the current administrators at UCSD (University of California, San Diego) to digitize the entire library print collection, by shredding it. You got that right, by shredding it. It's called the Librareome Project. Here's how it's described when our protagonist first encounters it:

Ahead of him, everything was empty bookcases, skeletons. Robert went to the end of the aisle and walked toward the noise. The air was a fog of floating paper dust. In the fourth aisle, the space between the bookcases was filled with a pulsing fabric tube. The monster worm was brightly lit from within. At the other end, almost twenty feet away, was the worm's maw—the source of the noise. Indistinct in the swirling haze, Robert could see two white-suited figures, their jackets labeled “Huertas Data Rescue,” The two wore filter masks and head protectors. They might have been construction workers. In fact, this business was the ultimate in deconstruction: first one and then the other would pull books off the racks and toss them into the shredder's maw. The maintenance labels made calm phrases of the horror: The raging maw was a “NaviCloud custom debinder.” The fabric tunnel that stretched out behind it was a “camera tunnel.” Robert flinched from the sight—and Epiphany randomly rewarded his gesture with imagery from within the monster: The shredded fragments of books and magazines flew down the tunnel like leaves in a tornado, twisting and tumbling. The inside of the fabric was stitched with thousands of tiny cameras. The shreds were being photographed again and again, from every angle and orientation, till finally the torn leaves dropped into a bin just in front of Robert. Rescued data.

Here's how it works:

The pictures coming from the camera tunnel are analyzed and reformatted. It's a simple matter of software to reorient the images, match the tear marks and reconstruct the original texts in the proper order. In fact—besides the mechanical simplicity of it all—that's the reason for the apparent violence. The tear marks come close to being unique. Really it's not a new thing. Shotgun reconstructions are classic in genomics.

Oh yeah?” Robert picked up the much-abused page that he had rescued from the PZ stacks. He held it out like some limp murder victim. “So what perfection of software is going to recover something that was torn from its binding and never photographed?”

Sir, it's not really a problem. There will be some loss, true. Even where everything is properly photoed, the programs will make some mismatches. Potentially, the error rate can be less than a few words per million volumes, far better than even hardcopy republishing with manual copyediting. That's why other major libraries are participating in the project, to get accurate cross checking.”

Well, if that idea isn't enough to blow your mind, get the book and read it for yourself. There's lots more. This entire Librareome project is just an excuse for diversion activity from what the book is really about, which is a plot to create a super virus that can effect the ultimate mind control on the earth's population. Robert, our ex-Alzheimer guy, just happens to have a son and daughter-in-law who are majorly deep into cyber-security for Southern California, and all of them get caught up into various levels of the plot.

The story is well written, with characters you soon learn to care about. The plot is intricate, and keeps you on the edge of your seat, metaphorically speaking. The ideas and vision of the future are sufficiently mind boggling to keep you fascinated, but at the same time, clearly based on current trends and developments. All in all, this is one of the best SciFi books I've read in quite some time. 10 stars. Very highly recommended!

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