Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Vinge, V. (2006). Rainbows end. New York: Tor.

Rainbows End is a wonderful adventure in the future of computing and the future of libraries and books. The “hero” Robert Gu is a former award winning poet who almost dies from Alzheimer’s disease. Medical technology catches up and is able to bring him back but without his amazing genius for poetry. On top of that, he has been out of it for so long that technology has left him so far behind he is almost illiterate (technology wise). He, along with other older folks, need to go back to high school and take remedial classes in technology. He also learns from his granddaughter and a young classmate in one of his remedial classes.

While all of this is going on there is a battle for the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Library. A wealthy investor is shredding all the books in order to digitize them. A group of older retired professors and administrators (including Robert Gu) attempt a protest and then sabotage. The company has shredded the books but the small protesting group hopes to limit their profit by gluing all the pieces together for a time so that other companies can catch up and no one company will have a monopoly.

Yet another plot is going on… Someone is attempting to basically take over the world by developing a YGTBM virus (You’ve Got To Believe Me) in which the victim is pretty much brainwashed or at least open to suggestion. The person trying to develop this is Alfred Vaz the head of India’s External Intelligence Agency and he believes that he is doing this to save the world from itself. Two characters(Gunberk Braun of the European Union Intelligence Board, and Keiko Mitsuri a Japanese Intelligence agent) think they are working with him to prevent a world disaster are actually working against him (or Alfred is trying to prevent them from finding out that he is involved and what he is up to). Alfred enlists the aid of Mr. Rabbit/ Mysterious Stranger (Mr. Rabbit to Vaz, Gunberk, and Mitsuri but only a voice/ Mysterious Stranger to Robert Gu) to carry out the subterfuge but Mr. Rabbit (who appears to be an artificial intelligence entity) begins to have other ideas and uses Robert Gu to foil the plot.

For librarians and book lovers, a highlight is a student protest at the UCSD library (which is actually orchestrated by Mr. Rabbit as a diversion for Vaz’s activities but then turns into so much more). Belief Circles collide with one group of students vying with another for control of the library. They end up asking the library to choose the winner and the library chooses the group that wanted real books back. Unfortunately, (this is why I was quite disappointed with the ending) there are no more real books that are put back in the library. They have all been destroyed and digitized and now exist only as digital versions. However, the protests and visibility the library gained during the process, encouraged more people than ever to visit the library and to use the digitized versions.

I have mixed feelings about this. I love what digitization can do for libraries. I love the fact that I can sit in the United States and go to the British library and look at not one but two copies of the Gutenberg Bible! I can compare side by side a vellum edition with a paper edition. I can enlarge the view so it is actually more detail that could be seen in person. This is amazing! I love this use of technology. However, I am a book lover and reading a book on a computer or even on an ebook reader is just not the same. I was very disappointed that the shredded books were never replaced. What does it mean to be a library with no physical books? I think libraries need to do both. They can have wonderful electronic collections which have some benefits and they can continue to have fantastic print collections which have other benefits.

In general, Rainbows End was a great read, but please don’t shred MY books.