2021. Thailand. The first chronolith arrives. One moment there’s empty space, and the next there abruptly appears a huge spire made of an unknown, indestructable material and bearing a baffling inscription. And, as if it’s not strange enough for an object to suddenly wink into existence, the inscription claims it comes from the future — from 2041!
A Robert Charles Wilson book always revolves around some big mysterious event that turns the world upside down, and The Chronoliths (2001) is no exception. It portrays a world deeply confused, and forever changed, by this sudden inexplicable series of events. I say “series of events,” because after that first chronolith, more and more of the things begin showing up, often appearing in the center of important cities, destroying property and killing thousands due to the shockwaves and extreme thermal effects (their appearance sucks up heat, temporarily freezing everything in the vicinity). At first these events are confined to Asia, but eventually they begin spreading around the world.
The actual technology behind the chronoliths is mysterious enough, but there is even greater cause for concern. Because, although the monuments vary in design, in every single case they make reference to a future military victory by someone called Kuin. And in every single case, the victory being celebrated is twenty years and three months in the future. Who Kuin might be is anyone’s guess: presumably some future leader or general or warlord, but no one really knows.
Wilson is not what you’d call a “hard sf” writer. He throws out enough physics to give an air of plausibility to what’s going on — something about Calabi-Yau spaces and exotic particles — but the story is really more about the why than the how. Why has Kuin sent the chronoliths back? Why is it important for word of his victories to go into the past? What does he hope to achieve?
The book grapples with issues of fate, destiny, causality, self-fulfilling prophecies, and feedback loops. If presented with such information about the future, how would the world really react? Would people accept those future military victories as unavoidable, and give up any thought of resistance, thus ensuring that those victories take place? Could informing people in the past that a certain event takes place in their future actually make that event inevitable? These are the kinds of twisted perspectives common in novels dealing with time travel, and they are woven deeply into the fabric of The Chronoliths.
Like all of Wilson’s novels, this one is highly character-driven, and contains some of his most absorbing and realistic characters to date. Much of what makes them so realistic is the fact that they are deeply flawed, flawed in ways that the reader can connect with because they are the same kinds of flaws we all possess. I doubt anyone could read this book without finding some character who reminds them of their own mistakes in life. But beyond the level of individual characters, Wilson describes a society with the same kind of realism — a society dealing with economic crisis, fear of the unknown, and political upheaval. His portrayal of the societal responses to the chronoliths strikes me as very much what would actually happen in such a situation.
In short: another strong performance from RCW.