Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson
Long ago when the Beatles were wondering whether to let it be, and John Lennon was asserting himself as a force in his own write, he penned a song simply titled, “Give Peace a Chance” which was first aired during his Bed-In during 1969. Even though it was a somewhat naive gesture, there was genuine sincerity in the message. Indeed, the song resonated to such an extent, it became a kind of anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement which was growing in strength in America. Looking back on it today, the song is tediously long and repetitive but, since there are still conflicts around the world, you can’t dispute the practical need for people to set their differences aside and live in greater harmony. Even though I might slight the sentiment by calling it hippie mush, it would be interesting to speculate on what the world might look like today if there had been an intervention earlier in our history. Suppose, for example, the conflict we know as World War I had actually started and then finished in 1914 as both sides looked down into the abyss and decided they would rather not go there. That this is a seductive idea to explore illustrates the strength of the subset of science fiction labelled alternate history. It sets out to answer the “what if” questions and, by doing so, give us a different insight into the pattern of events we call history.
Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor, 2013) subverts the usual alternate history trope by setting the story in an explicitly science fiction frame. In books like Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, humans make progress into their own future by their own bootstraps. Here we have an external force influencing events. Think of this as a different version of alien invasion story but with the possibility of altruism as the motive. Ours was a world of bellicosity about to embark on internecine struggle on a previously unimaginable scale. Now one-hundred years after the Armistice was signed, the world has enjoyed a period without major conflicts — obviously there have smaller scale outbreaks of violence as the human species lives up to its reputation for predatory behaviour — and increasing prosperity. Think of improving standards of living as being a peace dividend.
So what would be the point? Here’s this outside force and it’s persuaded us to take the Lennon option. Could this just be altruism? Well, think for a moment about all those biology classes you slept through as a child in school. There were references to different varieties of parasite that infect the host for the purposes of reproduction. You might remember novels like The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (you’ll notice a veterinarian with this name appears in Burning Paradise) which has aliens impregnate the women living in small towns and villages around the world. That was all a little, well, unsophisticated. All that use of technology to seal off the area with a force field and have all the women produce effectively identical children at the same time. It does rather give the game away, doesn’t it. But suppose a more long-term and subtle form of influence was at work in our world. It might weave itself into our culture so seamlessly that no-one would notice. Well, perhaps someone might notice and wonder. Or is parasitism the right phenomenon to be talking about? Maybe the right word is symbiosis which suggests mutual benefit to the two or more different organisms that share a common existence. Sitting in the middle is commensalism where two or more organisms co-exist but without any benefit to them from the relationship. In short, there’s no need to assume the presence of this alien intruder is malign. That would just be paranoid, wouldn’t it?
The most impressive quality about Robert Charles Wilson is his ability to create very real characters for us to follow as they contend with extraordinary events around them. Here we have a couple who separated yet now come together again after seven years. The trigger for this reunion is that she’s been looking after her nephew and niece after their parents were murdered by the aliens. Now these children have been targeted for assassination. The problem, of course, is that these children have done what they were trained to do when threatened. They have gone on the run. Aiding them is the son of the paranoid leader of the human resistance movement. He’s been co-ordinating the research into the alien entity and trying to find a way to fight back. As befits a paranoid, he’s made it very difficult for anyone to find him. But, perhaps his son and the desperate couple can track him down. If everyone was to turn up at the same place and at the same time, the couple might recover the children. But equally, the alien forces might have everyone together for extermination purposes. When anyone is in this situation, the only emotion to cling to is hope. There’s just one other thought to bear in mind when reading this book. “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.”
This leaves me forced into the use of a tired old cliché. Albeit inadvertently, I’ve saved the best till last. Yes, Burning Paradise is the best science fiction book I’ve read this year. It’s not afraid to deal with difficult questions of what life is, how we should react if we realise as a species that we’re in a relationship with other organisms, and, if we decide to do anything about it, what price we would be prepared to pay. It’s completely absorbing and both intellectually and emotionally satisfying as the individual and collective decisions are made. In the end, everyone has a say in the outcome and, whether it’s the product of intelligence or merely instinctual, everyone acts with commendable rationality and without sentimentality getting in the way. That’s why the outcome is a tragedy, even when translated up to the cosmic level. In a sense, none of the interested parties can be anything other than true to themselves. That’s why they do the things they do. In this, there’s one remarkable irony. For reasons you will understand if you read this book, the aliens consider themselves expendable. Yet, for as long as humanity persists, it’s stuck with the consequences of what it decides to do. Burning Paradise is strongly recommended.