Going to the lake with Robert Charles Wilson

One of the things Robert Charles Wilson is really good at is creating an air of intense mystery in his novels, the kind that reaches right into your brain, grabs hold of your sense of wonder, and forces you to anxiously ponder just what the answer is going to turn out to be. My latest foray into his work, Blind Lake from 2003, is no exception. My curiosity was engaged throughout the book; and while the ending was not quite as powerful or compelling as I would have hoped for, I did find it intriguing, and this was certainly a worthwhile use of a few days’ reading time. I have yet to read anything by Wilson that isn’t worth reading.

The Blind Lake of the title is a National Laboratory in Minnesota, working on what is commonly referred to as the New Astronomy. They are observing the surface and inhabitants of a planet 50 light-years away, but the thing is…… they don’t understand how they’re able to make these observations! The project began years before with a super-powerful telescope — actually a set of telescopes orbiting at the edge of the solar system, linked together to give an extremely refined image at great distances. This incredible telescopic array was so powerful it could focus in on a single alien individual on this distant planet. However, soon afterwards the telescopes started to malfunction, and the image grew progressively worse. Unable to make repairs at such a distance, scientists instead hoped to clean up the signal by processing it through a new kind of quantum computer, a cutting-edge system using adaptive neural nets and self-evolving code. It’s so cutting-edge, in fact, that no one really understands fully how it works. But it cleans up the telescopic image stream wonderfully. Only thing is, the images keep coming, even after the telescopes fail completely. Obviously impossible, and yet there it is. Mysterious, indeed.

The story is told largely through the eyes of a trio of reporters and writers visiting Blind Lake for an article for a major magazine. Soon after they arrive, they find themselves more deeply involved than they had expected, as the entire Blind Lake site is suddenly quarantined by the military. And it’s an absolute quarantine, backed up by high-tech mines around the perimeter, as several would-be escapees unfortunately discover. No one in or out, no communications, no explanation whatsoever. As this goes on for months and months, the only outside contact being a periodic supply truck that dumps food at the gate, the pressure mounts as interpersonal conflicts intensify and strange events occur. All this time, the scientists continue to observe the alien individual they’ve been following, dubbed “Subject,” and strange events begin to occur on that world also. All these odd events must be connected…. but how? Well I’ll leave that for you to figure out. Let’s just say it’s a case of humanity coming face-to-face with the bizarre, something totally alien and incomprehensible, or, as one of the reporters aptly puts it, the limits of intelligibility.

To be honest, at a certain point in the book you can pretty much figure out, in a general sense, what’s going on, even though the details are rather strange. And I felt the ending could have been a little stronger; I would like to have seen more contact with, and insight into, both Subject and another alien “entity.” And I also felt that humanity got off a little too easy, and “dodged a bullet” as it were. Overall, the characters were well-developed and portrayed; my only (small) problem was that the “cyncal, jaded reporter with a bitter past” character type comes a tad too close to cliché.

Nevertheless, this is still a good, solid read, and so far that’s about the worst evaluation I’ve been able to give an RCW book.

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