Mysterium – Robert Charles Wilson

This was my second experience with the work of Mr. Wilson. A few years ago I read his 1998 novel Darwinia and thought it was utterly brilliant (and still do). I’ve been eager to try some of his other work, and finally got around to it. And so I can tell you that Mysterium (1994), while perhaps some way from being “brilliant,” is still a good read.

Wilson likes big quirky “what if” scenarios in which people and places are suddenly displaced or thrown into radically different situations. In Darwinia, for example, the entire continent of Europe (not the land, but everything on it) disappears and is mysteriously replaced by virgin wilderness. Mysterium involves a small town in Michigan that gets transported to an alternate reality. The residents suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar version of America, one with different cultural foundations and beliefs, and with a repressive society dominated by an odd kind of pseudo-Christianity with almost Gestapo-like power. This strange nation covers different territory (including Canada), is at war with Spain, and is working on its own Manhattan Project. Most of the people of Two Rivers struggle just to survive and adjust to the new conditions, while a few try to figure out how they got there in the first place.

And how did they get there, after all? Hmmm, could it have something to do with that secretive government research facility a few miles away? Why yes, yes it could (surprise, surprise). Without giving too much away, let me say the mystery involves a strange artifact (not sure if “alien artifact” is the right description), the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a famous physicist with an intense interest in Gnosticism and other religious esoterica (especially relating to the nature and origin of the universe — religious cosmogonies).

Sometimes the metaphysical stuff is intriguing, but on the other hand it sometimes descends into mumbo-jumbo. Similarly with the science; there’s enough physics to whet the appetite, but it’s never fully fleshed out into anything truly explanatory. And in fact, at the end of the story we still don’t get a full, detailed explanation of what happened; we get a general idea, and are left to ponder the rest. But then, this story isn’t really about the science. It’s about people who have to suddenly confront a different reality and deal with it. As such, I think it works fairly well. For the most part, the characters are solid and believable enough to carry the story, and the alternate world they find themselves in is portrayed with enough detail to give it solidity as well.

This was not as good as the aforementioned Darwinia, but it’s certainly good enough to keep my interest in RCW going, so I’ll be looking for more of his books, no doubt.

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