First off, I like Vinge. He is a genuinely smart fellow, and while his characterization is often wooden, and his plot lines are occasionally flat, he has well thought out science fictional and programming related ideas that I usually come back to in my later ponderings. This book though, ooof. Unlike the other Vinge that I have read which deals with space ships and alien races, Rainbows End is set in the America of 2025. And because of that, and because of Vinge's less well thought out political ideas, this book often comes across as laughably unrealistic and absurd. Alien spiders, AI, FTL, sure, that sounds fun, I can suspend disbelief and think about them in the context of the story. But a hyper-competent and good hearted Department of Homeland security? Lol, my sides, they are in orbit, moving away at 0.2C. Why not add dragons and unicorns? This book also has an entirely justified American invasion that just *barely* manages to pre-empt a WMD launch; the evil doers even hid their WMDs under an orphanage! America has also switched over to a hyper efficient libertarian marketplace by 2025. And as we know, once you remove all constraints from corporations & add even more radically invasive technology, you get a really great and productive and innovative society. This idiot libertarianism lends just about every aspect of the story an air of pure fantasy. Here is one small instance: a character undergoes multiple, radical medical therapies; there is no mention of the cost or insurance paperwork. Really? Meanwhile in the real world, a pharma company just increased the price of a swathe of drugs by 5000% each. Why? Because fuck you, that's why. If you don't get the drugs you die or are crippled, so pay up. I have difficultly believing that our current situation gets better once you remove all constraint from the pharma companies/medical industry. Another instance: most of the characters make money by selling each other virtual goods; basically they are all employed making TF2 hats for each other in the Steam of the future. That's great, but it does raise the question of how they actually pay the rentiers who own the land, energy resources, app stores, medical patents, and all the existing copyrights. Oh, another small question, why does anyone want to buy the hat that a high school kid made, rather than the hat made by a professional triple A team? Or here, what about someone who isn't above average? I hear there are a lot of them these days. Or what about someone who doesn't want to keep running on the treadmill of global competition in their 50's and 60's? Is there any place in this society for them?
Ok, at this point in the review I think I've just accepted that I'm only going to list negatives.
Negative N: one of the conceits of the book is that teams of analysts can be rapidly assigned to new problems, and can evaluate and respond to these new problems within minutes. Near the end of the book, *thousands* (or even more?) analysts are added to the DHS to help with a crisis, and somehow this helps & quickly gives super-intelligent responses? I mean, a woman can have a baby in 9 months, so 50000 women should do it in 10 minutes, right? I did not get this part of the book at all; it takes time to get up to speed with a new problem, it takes time to coordinate workers, it takes security clearances & contracts to even be allowed to see the data, and even then each new person increases the risk of leaks/theft/other problems. This was particularly galling since one of the fundamental anti-patterns of computer programming is to add more people to a project if the project is taking too long. You would expect adding more people to speed the project up, but in reality it causes significant slowdowns in the short-to-medium term as the new people need to be integrated and brought up to speed on the work.
Negative N+1: At one point, a main character has their arm brutally destroyed. In the remaining chapters, that character barely thinks about the trauma of the experience, or the difficulties of going through life without a significant chunk of their body. Earlier I said that Vinge's characterization is wooden, but man, this was a new high, a towering red wood of woodenness.
Negative N+2: One of the neat aspects of the story is the augmented reality layer that people place over the real world using advanced contacts and ubiquitous sensors. Again, Vinge is a smart & technical fellow, and its neat to see his take on these technologies that are starting to come to fruition. But again, I feel like he largely glosses over the downsides of these new technologies. Things like: this.
While I am interested in some of the basic ideas of this book, and about how we might navigate between the Scylla of an all pervasive security state and the Charybdis of potential garage-level bio WMDs, this book is not the one to explore these ideas. It basically just says that "Yeah, Scylla is great, she has a good heart and will never use her tentacles to do terrible things to your orifices".
[Edit] Reading back over this review, man, I was really hard on Vinge. Part of it is that I hold authors I respect to higher standards; it is not so much that Vinge is history's greatest monster, and more that it is disappointing to find (what I think) is a blind spot in an author I like. As with his other books, I like many of the technical ideas explored in the book, and think that there is a great deal of intelligence and thought put into them, even if the resulting story isn't all that great.