A Hidden Place, Robert Charles Wilson

Orb, 1986 (2002 reprint), 220 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 0-7653-0261-6

One of the small ironies of voracious reading is the occasional hollow realization that there are forgotten books out there. Even knowledgeable fans of an author occasionally find out that they’ve missed one or two early titles. So it is that despite having nearly all of Robert Charles Wilson’s books on my shelves, I somehow missed out on his first two novels. Memory Wire is out of print, but A Hidden Place has been available in a nice trade paperback reprint edition for a while now: it took a chance meeting in a bookstore to remind me that I still had a short way to go to complete the Wilson set.

But reading this book now, years after formerly-underrated Wilson became a Hugo-award winning author (with 2005’s Spin), is a different experience than it must have been to read a first book from a promising novelist. A Hidden Place is now read more as a set of clues about Wilson’s ongoing career than a novel in itself. It’s a bit of research more than entertainment.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not a fine book on its own. For a novel of its time, especially a first effort by a newcomer, it’s got quite a few strengths, and its weaknesses will not be a problem for all readers.

Being firmly set in Wilson’s pre-Harvest period, the book is light on SF elements, and rather conventional in the way it deals with them. Set in Depression-era middle-America, A Hidden Place begins by describing the adventures of a mysterious vagabond named Bone, but soon turns its attention to a young man, Travis Fisher, as he travels to a new town and accidentally starts unraveling the mystery surrounding his new foster family. He’s come to a new place to escape the shadow of his mother’s death, but there’s no shortage of drama in his new home: Whether it’s the mysterious woman living with them, or the growing conflict between Travis and his uncle, A Hidden Place crackles with early conflict, and it’s one of Wilson’s distinguishing characteristics, even in this first effort, that the novel is often more interesting for its mainstream drama than its SF elements. As Travis struggles under mundane concerns such as keeping his job, arguing with his relatives or deciding which girl he wants to date, A Hidden Place becomes a charming small-town historical novel well before delving into the more mind-expanding vistas of Science Fiction. The historical details are convincing (our protagonist gets a job in an ice factory that’s starting to feel the effects of consumer refrigeration), and there’s a real pseudo-nostalgic charm in spending some time in a simpler era.

When the SF elements appear, they’re so watered-down as to take the quasi-mystic form of fantasy, with alien visitors sharing symbiotic links and transcendental travel mechanism. Frankly, I ended up liking the more realistic aspects of A Hidden Place better than the SF moments. But this, too, is a part of Wilson’s continuing development as a writer. His emphasis on recognizable character interaction has always been one of the best part of his fiction, but it took until The Harvest for his SF imagination to catch up with the quality of his writing, and then until The Chronoliths to really develop both aspects of his craft to a level that the wider SF community would stop to acclaim. It’s no accident that his best work to date, Spin, successfully manages both tight character drama and large-scale SF ideas.

A Hidden Place is certainly recognizable as an integral part of Wilson’s career: With its clean prose and attention to character, it shows a writer with high literary ambitions. The strengths remain in latter works, as the weaknesses disappear and the result is one of the best SF writers in the business today. Everyone has to start somewhere, and A Hidden Place is a respectable debut. Even fans weaned on latter-day Wilson will find much to appreciate here.

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