Vernor Vinge has written some excellent science fiction works, such as True Names and A Fire Upon the Deep. I thought the latter was well-plotted, had interesting characters, and had some truly fascinating technological ideas.
Rainbows End, on the other hand, is quite bad. I was put off by its opening, which posits a near-future world in which the intelligence agencies of the world’s major powers fence with each other but also work tirelessly to fend off unspeakably dangerous threats all the time. It struck me as like a cyberpunk-ish Tom Clancy—and I don’t mean that as a compliment. I forced myself to get through the rest, and while it got a little better and had some interesting technological ideas in it, that wasn’t enough to rescue it. The plot was unconvincing and contrived—I don’t have anything against intelligence/intrigue done well, quite the contrary, but this wasn’t. The main character seemed completely off from the start, and while I can appreciate that Vinge was trying to do something interesting with him, the execution was poor, and the main character’s journey seemed completely artificial. The other characters really weren’t any better, and Vinge commits the error of having his characterization done primarily by other characters in the book. That is, instead of becoming aware of what characters are like through their thoughts and actions, the reader is essentially told what they’re like by other characters who discuss them with each other.
In addition, a major character is a young girl, Miri, who at 13 is of course a tech wiz and who of course is extremely curious and of course sticks her nose into goings-on important to the plot and of course ends up being critical to the denouement. For me, that’s enough to kill a novel right there. You have to either be writing a children’s book or do everything else really really well to get past that, and Vinge sadly doesn’t do much well in this book.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Rainbows End won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2007. I was quite flabbergasted, and kept thinking that a data entry error somewhere was responsible for my reading this assertion. Sadly, no. Again, while I respect the technology that Vinge comes up with in the book, and think he did a good job with some of that, it’s still an award for best novel, not best futurist manifesto/prediction. I wondered then if that could possibly have been a really bad year for science fiction coming out of the US, such that there wasn’t anything truly good, and Vinge won through based parlty on past reputation.
But the shortlist for the 2007 Hugo included Blindsight (also available online). Blindsight is an excellently-written science fiction novel with some truly fantastic ideas, some novel concepts about where the future is going, interesting characters, a fascinating plot, and some extremely interesting musings on the core science fiction question of what it means to be human. I can see how some people might think that it tries too hard to be clever, and I could also see some people thinking that it’s overly intellectual, but even so, for it to have lost out to Rainbows End for the Hugo is a disgrace.