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Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

December 21, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson

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.

For reviews of other books by Robert Charles Wilson, see:
Julian Comstock
Vortex.

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

October 8, 2011 22 comments

The eternal question is of identity. Who are we, both as individuals and societies? The conventional answer is we are the sum of our experiences. Ignoring the old nature/nurture debate, lives are shaped by the choices we make and the consequences that affect us. An individual can have every conceivable genetic advantage but, if in a moment of drunken stupidity, our potential superman drives and crashes into a tree, every physical and intellectual advantage can be lost. Societies can also crash as selfishness and greed prevail over more altruistic policies to promote the common good. We only have to look around at the current debate over climate change. If everyone improved the efficiency of their homes and modified their behaviour to minimise emissions, the problem would be solved. But no-one wants to change unless they see the need in terms of their own benefit or are coerced into it. We may therefore be sleepwalking towards disaster. For those who like historical parallels, many of the theories to explain the collapse of the Mayan civilisation focus on the failure of agriculture to supply enough food to sustain the population. Yet, as the soil degraded, people kept on producing babies.

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson is the third and presumably last novel following on Spin and Axis. From a structural point of view, it’s elegantly constructed with two narrative threads. One is based in a recognisably “human” future as society adapts to the life offered by the Hypotheticals — aliens who have drastically interfered with Earth’s development for no obvious reason. The second starts some ten thousand years further into the future and then moves forward. Here we see some interesting posthuman speculation as hive-mind societies have emerged, with groups of individuals linking their emotional and intellectual functions into a consensual whole. The boundary lines between an individual and the group mind therefore blur as the mass of “human” thoughts and feelings are mediated through massive computer systems. All this would work well if the zeitgeist for each community remains rational or emotionally balanced. But, with everyone linked together, it’s entirely possible a society might unknowingly slip into irrationality or a single emotional state. Once this happens, there might be wars or a society might simply give up and die.

Robert Charles Wilson communing with nature, hypothetically speaking

Meanwhile, the Hypotheticals remain enigmatic. Both human and posthuman cultures start off no closer to any real understanding of what the aliens are nor what they want out of their interaction with humanity. In the future Vox culture, there’s a religious structure to the group mind’s belief as it runs an analogy to the current Christian belief in an end time when the survivors will be assimilated by the Hypotheticals and move on to a higher state of being. Vox is therefore moving through the worlds, collecting individuals thought to be the key to communicating with the Hypotheticals and ensuring uplift. Two individuals survive from Axis, Turk Findley and Isaac Dvali, and are a link between the human and posthuman times. A third is a personality construct grafted on to the mind of a linked posthuman. Thanks to them, we come to understand much of what has happened and, more importantly, Dvali is finally able to solve the enigma of the Hypotheticals.

In a sense, Vortex matches the Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon in which humanity evolves from individuals through natural selection and genetic engineering to a supermind of individuals linked by telepathy, and we watch as a supernova destroys the Last Men’s refuge. As in all books on a galactic scale, Vortex gives us the chance to watch the end of our universe and so gain a better perspective on how the choices we make shape our future. In this, it flirts with theories of the multiverse and suggests we could, whether consciously or unconsciously, produce different futures.

This explains the reason for the twin-narrative structure. In the “human” future, a young man is brought into a US State facility which assesses mental and physical competence. If the individual is not a danger to him/herself and others, there are community resources to assist this individual cope in the world outside. If there are problems, the individual may be referred on to state facilities for treatment and rehabilitation. This young man is of interest both because of where he has been working and because he’s been writing a future history. This could be a mere science fiction story, or it could be a form of communication from the future. This gives the psychologist Sandra Cole an interesting case to evaluate. Yet, from the outset, it’s obvious this man is a pawn. There’s the unusual interest of the police officer Bose, and why should her manager, Dr Congreve, suddenly reassign this patient to another doctor for evaluation? So begin the twin stories as Sandra and Bose try to protect the young man from some drug suppliers who believe he can identify them, while our future trio struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. The alternating chapters are carefully structured to leave modest cliffhangers which gives the whole a real page-turning boost — Robert Charles Wilson is always highly readable.

So, overall, Vortex is one of the better science fiction novels so far this year. In this, I admit my view is coloured by my ability to remember what happened in the first two volumes. It’s entirely possible this might not read so well as a standalone. I’m therefore in the usual mode of recommending this without reservation if you’ve already read Spin and Axis. Otherwise I suggest you read the aforementioned pair before you come to Vortex. That way, you will know who two of the key players are and what the Hypotheticals have been seen to do.

For reviews of other books by Robert Charles Wilson, see:
Burning Paradise
Julian Comstock.

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

It’s perhaps appropriate as we come around to the end of the one-hundred year moratorium on the publication of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ autobiography to pick up a modern exploration of the relationships between the classes, races and religions in a new United States. Not that I am drawing any direct comparison with the various adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course. Julian Comstock is a kind of post-apocalyptic novel, rather than one supposedly rooted in the real world of the Deep South. But in tone there’s a certain thematic overlap as Julian does what he thinks is right even though most around him think he is wrong (for one reason or another) and Robert Charles Wilson is also interested in social commentary, albeit not quite in the same vein as in Clemens’ published work. Whether all the more private thoughts about to be revealed in the unexpurgated version of Clemens’ autobiography are more closely akin to Wilson espoused by remains to be seen.

Anyway, here we are back in the territory first carved out in classics like Earth Abides by George R Stewart where a global epidemic reduced the population somewhat, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr. with a nuclear war. Lists are always boring so I will add only a two more relevant sources: The Cloud Walker by Edmund Cooper has the remnants of humanity dominated by the Luddite Church and the alternative history books like Pavane by Keith Roberts where the role of the church in managing access to knowledge is discussed.

For the purposes of Julian Comstock, we have the collapse of civilisation following the end of readily available oil. In a remarkably short span of years, wars are fought and epidemics rage as the infrastructure providing clean drinking water and sanitation disappears. When the dust settles, we have a relatively small world population, but one still intent on fighting wars. The rump of American society is dominated by the capitalists, a political elite and the religious right. A new form of feudalism has emerged with the majority indentured or otherwise committed to the service of the “aristos” — a class which includes the liberal left with more philosophical interests.

I confess to be less than impressed by the notion that what was left of middle Europe would be inclined or capable of maintaining an active military campaign in the border area of the US and Canada. My credulity is even further stretched by the idea that the Chinese might be selling advanced weaponry to the Europeans. But, if we are to go through a kind of civil war re-enactment scenario (not quite in the same mould as Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore), then this is as good a way of doing it as any. Indeed, when you actually list all the plot elements, none of them are particularly original and the whole is a more readable type of fiction than that written by Mack Reynolds who was playing around with left-wing economic themes thirty and forty years ago. It’s all rather worthy, told in a somewhat pedestrian style, with a rather predictable plot. I limped through to the end and was relieved to see the last page.

As an added note, Julian Comstock placed second in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2010 for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novel.

For reviews of other books by Robert Charles Wilson, see:
Burning Paradise
Vortex.

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