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Burning ParadiseBurning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Alternate history scifi about a subtle alien organism surrounding the earth and nudging the course of history towards peace for its own ends.

Bafflement. Robert Charles Wilson, what happened to you? How did the guy who wrote Spin phone in something so shallow and pointless? This is a fertile concept – humans confronting the idea that prosperity and peace are artificially imposed from without, and having to decide what to do about it. You could really go places with that. This book utterly fails to. It flails around a bit with some stilted interpersonal nonsense, drops a few obvious twists and sets up more plot holes than most Stargate episodes, and then limps to a vague conclusion type thing. There isn't even enough there here for me to get my teeth in for some real complaining. I can't, because there's not enough substance.

Seriously, his back catalog is kind of shaky, but this was recently published and we know what he can do. What the hell happened to RCW?




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VortexVortex by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


And this trilogy goes out with a . . . let’s be a teensy bit generous and call it a muffled bang.



So one of the main reasons I loved Spin so much was it paralleled a people story with a cosmic story in this remarkable way. It gave us sweeping epochs of galactic time and the daily quotidiana of an incestuous bunch of people in the same breath, and didn’t lose the scale or the wonder of either. And it was really good at making the cosmic scale stuff so urgent, so interesting because it was so urgent and interesting and inexplicable to the people, and I got really invested in everything they did to try and figure out the fuck was happening to the human race.



This book explains what was happening. And it’s . . . I . . . hmm. It’s a really nihilist answer. “And now the stone had rolled away, revealing only the weakling prophet of a mindless god,” as one of the characters describes a similar moment, in a classically Wilsonian turn of phrase. Painfully so, for me, because the explanation rendered unto dust all the best parts of Spin the way they struggled individually and societally, how fucking smart they got when they had to, and how scared. That was hard.



Except Wilson knew that. And this is what leaves him a cut above the other guys writing stuff in the same ballpark as him. Stephen Baxter never would have brought this book back around in the moment of its deepest nihilism, and rested a quiet, gentle counter-argument on the tiny actions of one person, spreading to another, to another. And make it actually work for me. Make it move me over what happens to two or three people on one random summer night in Texas, while the main bulk of the story is taking place at the heat death of the universe (not a metaphor).



So yeah. It’s not a perfect book. The first half is really slow, and he throws around a lot of important words like “conscience” and “agency” in this slapdash way where I kept snapping at him to fucking define his terms! But he pulled it out in the end, yeah. Spin is still the best of the trilogy by a lot, but this is not disappointing.





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DarwiniaDarwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Photographer in alt history 1920’s gets recruited into a battle for the memory of the universe taking place at the end of time. Which is a way more interesting summary than this book deserves.



Yeah, I think I need to stop digging through RCW’s back catalog in search of a book as brilliant and wonderful as Spin. There clearly isn’t one back there, and it isn’t worth having to slog through stuff like this.



This is supposed to be a skiffy meditation on immortality and memory and living, all wrapped in cool alt history packaging. Unfortunatley, It’s actually a thoroughly boring and disjointed bit of cardboard wanking of the “but I just want to live a normal life, why must I do great things?” variety. Complete with fridging of the wife for plot convenience and “character development,” of course, this being the most common fictional method of making a dude interesting or driven or whatever.



Blech. RCW,, for serious: you are better than this crap.





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AxisAxis by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Mild-mannered sequel to the ass-kicking (kick-assing? Where did that come from, brain?) Spin. Hostile geopolitics, more attempts to understand what the hypothetical alien intelligences are doing, etc.



Spin is so good partly because it has the breath-catching scale of good hard SF – literal galactic mega years – while not losing the accessibility of a single personal narrative, and a good one, too. Axis loses the sensawunda, and the personal narrative – a woman forging new connections after the end of her marriage, a child who can communicate with the hypothetical powers – is fine, but not exciting. Wilson often writes practice books, I think. Chronoliths is clearly his warm-up pitch at the themes and scale he nailed in Spin, and this book is a clear echo of the themes from the claustrophobic and creepy Blind Lake. Unfortunately, Blind Lake might have done it just as well. Axis’s pat thematic movement about scales of time and identity as a memory game fell a bit flat for me.



Still, a Wilson book is far and away better written than 80% of the scifi out there, on a purely esthetic level. I am frankly derisive of anyone who would prefer that Sawyer hack to Wilson in the Canadian SF pond.





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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A very cool book, mildly disappointing. Post oil crisis United States, with a constricted population, Presidential-military-religious government, nineteenth-century values. Country boy Adam Hazzard tells the story of his life with the President's nephew, Julian, in the army and in the capitol of New York.

What's great about this book is that it's post-apocalypse specfic written as a boy's own adventure nineteenth-century novel. And that makes it kind of awesome. The world building is the treat here, because this fundamentalist, stratified, technologically backward future is sad and believable. And Wilson's writing and his control of structure and theme, as usual, shine. This is a book about change and time, about how the future is an imperfect memory of the past, and so is growing up.

So I do give Wilson points for having an actual, you know, reason for the style other than, well, stylism. But that doesn't mean it's not also frustrating and occasionally painful to be confined to Adam's pious, naïve narration. The book is limited to Adam's limitations, except for frequent and often hilarious dramatic ironies (honey, your best friend doesn't like "esthetes," he is so gay. Gay gay gay).

Clever, beautiful in places, perfectly styled. But disappointing to me because of the limitations and all of the classist/sexist baggage that comes along with this kind of pastiche. It's not that Wilson doesn't know about it, because he does. It's just that I got pretty sick of it, after a while, and the way it kept me at a distance.

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Julian: A Christmas Story Julian: A Christmas Story by Robert Charles Wilson


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A novella published in one of those impossible numbered hardcovers with a tiny print run. But luckily, the text is also available right here, and I recommend it.

RCW is one of my favorite science fiction authors, full stop. (Well, for his work starting around 2003 – things before that are a bit iffy). This is the story of two seventeen-year-old boys and the draft of Christmas 2172. It turns out I have a narrative kink for science fiction that plausibly turns the future into a social mirror of our past. I bet I can thank Lois McMaster Bujold and Neal Stephenson for that. Wilson's tense, fundamentalist, warring America is a fractured reflection of the nineteenth century, but this is also a highly personal story of two young people on the brink of new lives. And it's Wilson, so the writing soars, more than once.

This is a prequel to a novel, which I have just now procured. Yes, please.

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Blind Lake Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In future America, a scientific installation observes life on a very distant planet through complicated quantum whatsits, trying to make sense of behavior with no commonality or context. But then the facility is locked down from the outside with no communication or explanation, leaving an astrobiologist, her troubled daughter and crazy ex-husband, and a reporter inside.

All right, now there's a book. A three-star Wilson book is a four-star for most other scifi authors. This isn't the best of him – it has some timing problems, and he shorthands some of the emotional depth. But there's such thematic richness here: it's a book about transitioning from objective observationalism to subjective narratives. It's about Heisenberg uncertainty and observer effects and subject/object positioning. And it's all tense and clever and mysterious, right up to the very end.

Not the best of Wilson, like I said. He handicaps himself a bit by closing the universe of the book down to the facility, because one thing he's very good at is depicting global crisis in meaningful and personal ways (see Spin, which I still really, really like). And this book doesn't quite juggle the interpersonal intensity against the nifty science with the grace he does later. But it's still a damn good book.

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Zoe, a carefully engineered and physiologically augmented clone, is sent from autocratically-controlled earth to an exploration outpost on a new world. It’s hoped that she will be able to cope with the virulent Isis atmosphere, which eats people alive in under a minute. But Zoe has been tampered with, and no one knows that her mind and emotions might actually be her own now.

I’m reading Wilson’s catalog backwards, pretty much by accident, and it’s kind of shocking really. Sometime in the past twelve books he figured out how to write (see the mostly excellent Spin). It was a few books after this one, apparently.

Because . . . ouch. Good worldbuilding, flat characters, dreadful construction. This book doesn’t so much fall apart at the end as fail utterly to come together in the middle.

The idea was there, though, potentially rich and tragically . . . I was going to say under-executed, but actually I think it’s over-executed. I’m glad to see he’s always had good ideas, and something of a sense of how they ought to come together. Just, uh, it’s a lot better without all the flailing and hopping around on one foot.
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In our near future, the chronoliths start arriving out of thin air across the world – enormous, destructive monuments to conquests that, according to the engravings, won’t occur for twenty more years. Scott writes his memoir, telling of his presence at the arrival of the first chronolith in Thailand and the set of extraordinary experiences that keep his life entwined with the mystery and the slim hope of averting global disaster. The chronoliths arrive from the future, and they bring with them a bending of reality, a shift of the rules of time and coincidence and destiny that has very intimate consequences for Scott and his family.

Dude! It’s a proto Spin! Seriously – we’ve got the fictionalized memoir style, the near future setting and focus on the global sociological response to disaster, the blend of abstract theory and intense character work. Not as good as Spin, as you might expect if we assume this really was Wilson’s warm-up book – the memoir style is unfocussed and a bit wobbly here, the drama yanked a bit too taut in places, some shiny theory of the temporal physics of coincidence used to justify some otherwise indefensible plot devices without actually illuminating those devices as it could have. I also saw the endgame coming quite far off.

But if you ask me, ‘not as good as Spin’ is still saying a whole lot. Wilson has a real flare for both sink-your-teeth-in science and for compelling, personal character work. Unusual for the genre, sad to say. He also deals with big sociological change in impressive, detailed ways. And I just like his books. They make sense to me; they work on a rhythm I’m naturally tuned to, intellectually and emotionally. The puzzles appeal to the philosopher in me, and the writing feels comfortable and right (not coincidentally, I think, Wilson and I have a congruent prose style).


Time has an arrow, Sue Chopra once told me. It flies in one direction. Combine fire and firewood, you get ashes. Combine fire and ashes, you don't get firewood.

Morality has an arrow, too. For example: Run a film of the Second World War backward and you invert its moral logic. The Allies sign a peace agreement with Japan and promptly bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nazis extract bullets from the heads of emaciated Jews and nurse them back to health.

The problem with tau turbulence, Sue said, is that it mingles these paradoxes into daily experience.

In the vicinity of a Chronolith, a saint might be a very dangerous man. A sinner is probably more useful.


Yeah. Like that.
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One day in our near future, the moon and all the stars disappear from the sky. All of them at once, all over the world. Decades later and far away, Tyler remembers that night and all the years after as he grew up part of the generation that knew the world was going to end within the next fifty years. And I really cannot describe the plot with any more exactitude, because saying anything else would spoil one of the hundred complex threads woven into this story, and that would be a damn shame.

I can say that this is what is known as a “hard SF” novel, and as such it is powered on ideas. Extraordinary ideas which test the boundaries of the universe as we know it, from the jaw-droppingly smart to the ones I just didn't buy. But this is also a book rich in people, from the very personal convolutions of Tyler’s existence in and out of the orbit of twins Jason and Diane, to the deft, evocative way Wilson describes how human societies themselves work.

And that’s what’s so brilliant about this book – it’s got range. It plays Tyler and Diane and Jason’s lives on the same stage, with the same life and sympathy with which it plays the rise and fall of civilizations, the making of worlds, the human spirit in extremity at its best in grace and cleverness, and its worst in hopelessness and fear. There’s so much packed into this just-right 370 pages, from a slow and subtle love story to penetrating insights on just how people and governments work in long, wrenching crisis, and then the hard slam. As the why and the how of the plot are slowly revealed through Tyler’s memories and the past races to meet the present, the nature of the story lets Wilson do things with scale, with everything from the passage of time on the cosmic scale to the scope of human understanding. It’s riveting, sweet, charismatic, difficult to read in places.

Which is neglecting the prose, which is lucid and adroitly theatrical and just right.

“Dreams, Diane once said, are metaphors gone feral.”

“What we were transplanting was not biology but human history, and human history, Jase had said, burned like a fire compared to the slow rust of evolution.”

“There’s a phrase Pastor Bob Cobble liked to use back at Jordan Tabernacle. ‘His heart cried out to God.’ . . . But you have to parse the sentence. ‘His heart cried out’ – I think that’s all of us, it’s universal. You, Simon, me, Jason. Even Carol. Even E.D. When people come to understand how big the universe is and how short a human life is, their hearts cry out. Sometimes it’s a cry of joy, I think that’s what it was for Jason, I think that’s what I didn’t understand about him. He had the gift of awe. But I think for most of us it’s a cry of terror. The terror of extinction, the terror of meaninglessness. Our hearts cry out. Maybe to God, or maybe just to break the silence.”

And that last quote is actually a much better portrait of the book than I’m managing.

Wow. Pieces of this one will be with me for a long time.

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