Tag Archives: Robert Charles Wilson

A Hidden Place deserves to be read, not hidden

“Maybe it’s true,” he said slowly, “what Aunt Liza believes about Anna. She’s not human. For the first time he looked at her. “You understand that?”

Title: A Hidden Place
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 1986
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For my latest excursion into the works of one of my favorite authors, I went all the way to the beginning to take a look at Wilson’s very first novel, A Hidden Place. And what did I find? Well, a fine book, which was no surprise. Although this one largely lacks the boldness of premise that Wilson exhibits in his later novels, this is nevertheless a solid and satisfying piece of work. And although Wilson only gets stronger over time, his characteristic strengths are all evident here at the start of his career: the convincing depth of his characters, the vibrancy and genuineness of his settings, and his keen insights into life and human experience.

In the 1930’s, young Travis is taken in by his aunt and uncle after his mother’s death; and given her scandalous lifestyle (she was a “working girl”), he finds himself an outcast in a small prudish town of conventional folks. He soon connects with Nancy, a girl his own age who is also an outcast, a starry-eyed dreamer who longs to escape the confining limits of dreary small town life. And these two soon find their lives entwined with that of yet a third sort of outcast, for Travis’ aunt and uncle have a boarder living in their attic, an indescribably strange girl named Anna who has very bizarre effects on people. Travis is drawn to her for reasons he can’t understand. There are secret midnight meetings between her and Uncle Creath. And there are hushed rumors about her all over town. No one seems to know who — or even what — she really is.

Interspersed with these events are scenes of a traveling Hobo named Bone, a peculiar giant riding rail cars around the country and struggling to survive. Bone is also something of a mystery to those around him, and some try to take advantage of his apparent simple-mindedness. Bone feels a constant tug pulling him to some faraway place. He doesn’t know what it means, but as it gets stronger and stronger, he has no choice but to follow it wherever it leads — which happens to be a certain small town already mentioned.

This is an attractive novel because of its many different facets: the mysterious nature of Anna and Bone (which I won’t spoil for you); the anxiety and quiet desperation of Depression-era America; the social intrigues of an insular small town; the difficulties faced by those who don’t fit into the prevalent social order; and the tendency to see in others what we want to see, in effect making other people a mirror of our own deepest needs or expectations. Wilson handles all these with skill, and braids them together into a whole that resonates with the reader.

And speaking of resonating, one of the things I love about Wilson’s writing is the way he slips in little bits of insight and truth about life. I think I say that in every Wilson review I do, but how could anyone fail to identify with a passage like this:

[…] he felt, too keenly, the narrowing of life itself. You start out, Creath thought, you are a river in full flood; but life meets you with its dams and deadfalls and all its interminable and arid places. You lose speed, depth, urgency, desire. You become a trickle in a desert.

So yeah….. get the book, read the book, enjoy the book. You just cannot go wrong with Robert Charles Wilson.

Immortality and its discontents

It was the same dream for everyone. The dream was complex, but the dream in its most fundamental form was a single thought, a question posed in six billion human skulls and more than three thousand languages.
The question was: Do you want to live?

Title: The Harvest
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 1992
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

theharvestAs with most of Wilson’s other novels, this one is built upon a bold and compelling premise: what happens when aliens show up and offer us immortality? Some authors might use that premise as an intro to deception and alien invasion, but Wilson takes the idea at face value and treats it seriously. The offer is sincere and the immortality is real. The book is an exploration of humanity’s reaction to such an offer, and the changes that ensue. More specifically, it’s about those few people who turn down the offer, and how they deal with their decision in a vastly altered world.

After orbiting the Earth for a year, the Travelers decide to bestow a gift upon its inhabitants. On the day that comes to be known as Contact, every man, woman, and child is given a choice: to remain as they are, or to become like the Travelers, creatures with indefinite lifespans, roaming the galaxy in exploration. There are no strings attached to the offer; nothing is held back, and the extent of the change is made clear to everyone up front:

Do you want to live, they had asked, even if you change? Even if you become, in time, something no longer entirely human?

The vast majority of humanity accepts the offer; after all, it’s hard to turn down immortality. But approximately one in ten thousand do turn it down, for a variety of reasons. The novel revolves around a group of such people, lingering behind in a world being deserted. There’s John Tyler, a not-quite-sane Army colonel whose paranoia forces him to see events through the lens of invasion, and to do whatever he can to fight back. Joey Commoner is a rebellious youth with the word “worthless” tattooed on his arm; he doesn’t know if he deserves immortality, but even so, if everyone else wants it, then count him out. Miriam Flett is an old woman who has lived a life of faith, and who sees these changes as a test of that faith and/or a ploy of Satan. Tom Kindle is a hermit, a cantankerous old coot who doesn’t care for the company of others; the disembodied communal life of the Travelers appeals to him not one bit.

There are others, too, but the central character is Matt Wheeler, a small-town doctor whose decision to remain human will separate him forever from his teenage daughter. At first Matt’s motivations are not clear, and I don’t think he himself could put them into words. However, as he has more time to think about it, he figures out why he said no to the Travelers. He simply can’t bring himself to give up his humanity, and part of being human is coming to terms with the human condition:

What they had given up was something more subtle. It had taken Matt most of his life to learn to live in a world where everything he loved was liable to vanish — and he had never loved that vanishing. But he had learned to endure in spite of it. He had made a contract with it. You don’t stint your love even if the people you love grow old or grow apart. You save a life, when you can, even though everyone dies. There was nothing to be gained by holding back. Seize the day; there is no other reward.

Such perceptive insights into the human spirit form much of the strength of this novel, something that will come as no surprise to those familiar with Wilson’s work. He can do more to develop a character in a few paragraphs than some authors can do in a whole chapter (or even book!). Add to that his boldly imaginative story ideas, and it’s no wonder he’s one of my very favorite writers.

Time travel done with elegance and intelligence

The place you stand is always the present and that’s all you ever really have — I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Title: A Bridge of Years
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 1991
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

bridgeofyearsI plan to eventually read every novel Robert Charles Wilson has written, and I’m slowly working my way toward that goal. This time I’ve gone back a little in time (yes, that is a pun) to one of his earlier ones, A Bridge of Years. The title is to be taken literally — this is a time travel novel. However, it’s not what you might think of as a typical time travel novel. The book is less concerned with the time traveling phenomenon itself (explanations of the technology, changes to the past, time paradoxes and all that), and more focused on a small group of characters and the way this time bridge affects their lives. When some of them see this discovery as a means of escaping an intolerable existence, they set themselves up for a lesson about past, present, and future; they learn that your life follows you wherever you go, and you can’t escape it so easily.

The novel starts off in the year 1989. After a painful divorce and a period of alcoholism, Tom Winter moves back to the small town on the northwest American coast where he spent his childhood. Looking for some quiet and solitude in which to rebuild his shattered life, he buys a house in the semi-rural area outside of town. The previous owner of the house mysteriously disappeared ten years ago, and as Tom settles in he discovers other mysteries about his new home — such as the fact that it seems to be self-cleaning and self-repairing. Not to mention the tunnel leading out of the basement, a tunnel that ends, incredibly, in New York City and, just as incredibly, in the year 1962.

The house is one of a series of terminals stretching back in time from the far future, each set of stations bridging a gap of several decades or so. The question of who built them, and why, is only addressed in a peripheral way. The story is not about those enigmatic far-future beings, although there are tantalizing hints here and there. No, this is a story about two men who make the mistake of seeing this time tunnel as their salvation, as a way to transform their lives, as a way to leave behind all the negative baggage of their past. Tom sees the Sixties as a simpler, more innocent time in which to live, a place to start over and find new love. But this simplistic dream is destroyed when he finds out he’s not the only person to follow the same escape route. Sharing this earlier New York with him is Billy, a super-soldier from the late 21st century trying to escape the twin horrors of war and ecological disaster. Unfortunately, Billy has been altered by the military technology of his time; he was fitted with special armor that is a part of him, that regulates and controls his hormones, and that he can’t live without. And his armor tells him Tom Winter is a threat, come to punish him for deserting the army….. uh oh.

The book works extremely well on the character level, and the plot is tense and well-constructed. And throughout the book are some interesting perspectives on the nature of time. For instance, Tom wonders about whether or not the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s will play out the same way they did “before,” and eventually is persuaded to this view:

I think the future is something like a big building in the fog — you know it’s there, and you can grope your way toward it, but you can’t be sure about it until it’s close enough to touch.

Tom also comes to realize that the past is not simply a set piece or prop, not some idealized fantasy, but a place with its own gritty reality, both good and bad:

[…] the only way you can own the past is by respecting it — by not turning it into something quaint or laughable or pastel or bittersweet. It’s a real place where real people live. And the future is real because we’re building it out of real hours and real days. No world out of the world, Tom thought. No Eden, no Utopia, only what you can touch and the touching of it.

This is a fine novel, and a unique and mature take on the time travel theme. I’d expect nothing less of Wilson.

Wilson goes weird — Perseids doesn’t quite work for me

perseidsThis is going to be a rather short review, because I just don’t have much to say about Robert Charles Wilson’s short story collection, The Perseids and Other Stories (published in 2000). Don’t get me wrong now, Wilson is one of my favorite authors, but as much as I’d like to be able to tell you great things about this collection, I just can’t bring myself to do it. Based on this volume, it appears I’ll have to put RCW into that category of writers who write awesome novels, but whose short stories don’t do much for me (a category he shares with Vernor Vinge, as I discovered a while back).

I should try to explain my lack of enthusiasm. It’s not that this material is badly written; no, it is competent in terms of descriptions, characters, plot structure, and all the mechanical aspects of writing. Wilson is far too good a writer to fail in such an obvious manner. Where most of these stories fall short is in the ideas and concepts they are built upon, and their general atmosphere of strangeness that I just couldn’t connect with. There’s too much of a bizarre occult slant to many of them, too much magic or supernaturalism or just plain weirdness to suit me, and not enough SF of a stricter sort (the kind that provides at least some sort of rational or scientific background for what’s happening). There was also a nagging feeling of insignificance or smallness; largely absent here were what you might call Wilsonian Big Ideas — the kinds of big, bold, world-changing premises that he tackles in his novels.

One exception to that is the title story, “The Perseids,” which provides a mind-warping change of perspective on just what a human being is. Also of some interest is “The Observer,” which also involves a different perspective, this time on the universe and its expansion. This one has Edwin Hubble as one of its characters, and asks whether the universe is actually expanding, or whether we are shrinking. And “Protocols of Consumption” presents some alarming consequences of our society’s overuse of chemicals and medications. However, that’s only one-third of the collection; the rest didn’t leave much of an impression on me, or at least not a positive one.

I can understand Wilson wanting to do something different from what he does with his novels. Something smaller, more intimate if you will, with a different kind of atmosphere. I’m sorry to say it just didn’t work for me, for the most part. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, just a difference of taste between the author and this particular reader. As the saying goes, your results may vary.

The Chronoliths: Wilson’s time-traveling monuments

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.

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.