Tag Archives: Robert Charles Wilson

Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2009, 413 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1971-5

We’re all familiar with the disappointment when a book we were primed to like doesn’t live up to expectations.  But what about the surprise when a book that didn’t look all that good turns out to be quite a bit better than expected?

I steeled myself before reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock.  Even though I quite like most of what Wilson writes, the recent duds of Axis and the not-growing-any-fainter trauma of Darwinia temper certitudes about any new book of his.  Then there’s the fact that Julian Comstock is an expansion of a previous novella that had left me cold, along with my general lack of enthusiasm for post-apocalyptic futures.  None of this amounted to any burning desire to read the book, which helps explain why it was the last of this year’s Hugo-nominated slate to be taken off my shelves.

Most of my apprehensions were justified: Julian Comstock is, after all, an exercise in using a Science Fiction framework to tell another kind of story.  Set in a post-apocalyptic 2170s where America (and presumably much of the world) has regressed to late-nineteenth-century levels of technology and political sophistication, Wilson’s novel is really an old-fashioned Victorian adventure set in a future engineered to foster those kinds of stories.  Any attempt to criticize the world-building, the regression of current social values and the almost-complete lack of technology beyond 1870s sophistication takes a back seat to the realization that Wilson is manipulating his future to tell a story, not writing a dour prescription for everyone foolish enough to ride in an SUV.

It helps a lot that the story is told in a sympathetic faux-naif style that makes even the cruellest deprivations sound like just another character-building obstacle.  Julian Comstock may be the hero of the novel, but it’s being told by Adam Hazzard, a young man with literary ambitions who rides alongside his friend “Julian Conqueror” as major events happen to them both.  The style, entertaining and funny, polishes a depressing setting into a far more interesting second-level read.  This blend of ironic narration and bleak world-building is what prevents Julian Comstock from falling prey to the same air of déjà-vu that makes other earnestly catastrophic books so unpleasant to read –I’m looking at you, Hugo-nominated The Windup Girl.  For a future in which most of us would be condemned as heretics, it’s a surprisingly charming and funny novel.

So it is that within pages of starting Julian Comstock, I found myself unexplainably enthralled by the power of its prose, slowing down my usual reading speed in order to appreciate the subtleties of the sly humour, offhand references to hideous bits of future history and stone-faced put-downs of contemporary values (“Business Men, Atheists, Harlots and Automobiles” [P.211])  There’s nothing fun about much of Julian Comstock’s world, but the adventures narrated are gripping, and faithfully follow the form of classic adventure novels.  The story spends a bit of time in Montréal (with funny snippets of French) before setting out to the Saguenay and Newfoundland after a detour in New York.  In the background, weighty issues of political infighting, dynastic succession and church/state conflict play out: It’s quite a balancing act to put those into an otherwise light adventure of wartime heroics and coming-of-age discoveries.

But balance and subtlety are, after all, what Wilson does best, and the result this time around is an odd novel that dares to do things that others wouldn’t even consider.  There are allusions here to historical figures and genre literature that I’m ill-equipped to evaluate, but those won’t slow down readers who suspect nothing about Julian the Apostle and William Taylor Adams.  It’s also, again in the Wilson tradition, quite a bit different from anything he’s done before.  And while I don’t quite love the result (see above regarding residual concerns about the world-building), I respect it quite a bit more than I expected from early reports about the novel.  Considering a 2010 Hugo Best Novel nominee slate dominated by books with significant problems, Julian Comstock is the best-rounded of them all, with the added advantage of considerable charm.  Guess where my vote is going?

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.

Axis, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2007, 303 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-0939-6

Robert Charles Wilson fans anxiously waiting to pounce upon this sequel to the Hugo-nominated Spin may want to temper their enthusiasm, take a deep breath and maybe even wait a year or two. Axis is a follow-up to a book that didn’t need one, but it’s obviously the second volume in what could be a trilogy and unlike Spin, it feels like it’s setting up something else.

It begins much like Spin. The echo of a young boy witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon at night carries from the previous volume, even though in this case it’s ash falling rather than the stars disappearing that causes concern. Things get more interesting when the ash fall is revealed to be made of decayed alien machinery which crumble to dust. Clearly, the mysterious alien influences that drove the events of Spin are still being felt, and it’s up to the human characters to figure out what’s happening.

They are not the same characters that we followed in Spin. At one exception, this is a new generation of explorers, obsessives and drifters that have ended up on the new world where humans are struggling to understand their new place in the universe. The colony’s government isn’t completely benign, the question of the genetically modified Fourths continues to be controversial and the mystery of the alien presence continues to float above the plot.

But never mind the ideas, because the emphasis here is on characters. The woman looking for the truth that made her father disappear. The boy who discovers his superhuman abilities. The man who’s got nowhere else to go but the frontier. The elderly Fourth who hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes that still haunt her. Axis throttles back on the density of ideas and keeps up the emphasis on the people living through it all, a move that recalls Wilson’s first few novels. It’s no coincidence if Axis feels like a much smaller book than Spin.

The result, unfortunately, is also a novel that feels emptier than its predecessor. There isn’t as much to discuss, and whatever is in the novel seems to be waiting for the third volume before blooming to its fullest. The conclusion itself reads like a muddy abstraction, enough to mark the end of the novel but not clearly enough to provide much closure. It’s a frustrating state in which to leave readers, and I suspect that this wait-and-see attitude won’t reflect well on the novel until the next book comes out. As it stands, Axis doesn’t hold up very well without knowledge of Spin, and it feels unfinished. It would have been nice for the marketing geniuses at Tor to acknowledge a “second volume in a trilogy” mention somewhere on the book, but they haven’t done so yet on other novels, so why should they start being honest now?

Fortunately, there are other good reasons to read Axis: The characterization, as previously mentioned, is up to Wilson’s best standards, and so is his prose. Wilson’s matter-of-fact writing is just as accessible as it’s ever been, and the storyline is just compelling enough to lead from chapter to chapter. But this is definitely a novel that leads into the next one, so don’t expect a satisfying reading experience until you have the sequel on-hand.

Don’t expect much critical consensus on this novel either. This is Wilson’s first attempt at a series, and even if Axis is up to his prose standards, it doesn’t succeed as a standalone book and will depends on its as-yet-untitled sequel to satisfy reader expectations. In the meantime, there just isn’t much to say about the book. It’s like trying to decide the worth of an entire novel after reading a particularly uneventful middle third.

Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2005, 364 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30938-6

What’s deceptive in Robert Charles Wilson’s work in that he makes it seem so simple. While other science-fiction writers really want you to sit down and study their books as if they were flight operation manuals, Wilson does the work for you, puts ordinary characters in the middle of big ideas, and then shows you what happens to them. This, of course, is how all SF should be: The difference is that Wilson, especially in his last three books, has mastered the mechanics of SF writing like few of his contemporaries.

It’s not that he never makes mistakes. I don’t think a review of his Darwinia has been written yet that doesn’t include the word “flawed”. But out of Darwinia grew Wilson’s current golden age (and got him a steady spot on the Hugo Awards nomination lists ever since) His last few books, including The Chronolith and Blind Lake, have been very well-received, and Spin is another work in the same mold. In fact, it has more than it shares of similitudes with The Chronolith: Once more, a character describes, in retrospect, how he lived through a few tumultuous decades, in light of what may charitably be described as an invasion from the unknown.

This time around, though, Earth isn’t colonized by mysterious monuments as much as it’s enveloped by a distortion field blocking it from the rest of the universe. Shades of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, you’ll say, except that Wilson develops the idea much further: The sun is blocked, but something substitutes its light and heat. The Moon disappears but its tidal effects survive. Satellites fall but the barrier is permeable. Then they discover that time passes a lot faster outside the field than inside… enabling Earth to survive more or less intact through thousands of years. Clearly, someone or something has gone through a lot of trouble to put the planet in a high-tech Mason jar. But why?

Big ideas indeed, but Wilson would rather focus on a few characters and so, after front-loading most of the Big Ideas at the beginning of the novel, he then slows the pace down and focuses on three main characters. Spin then becomes a romantic/family saga spanning a few decades, throughout which our three main characters experience and demonstrate the social changes afflicting an Earth cut out from the rest of the universe. There’s still plenty of SF goodness to come (including a Hail-Mary Mars colonization plan whose result I won’t spoil here) but Wilson makes it all accessible and compelling through savvy writing. It will help non-SF audiences that Wilson knows how to make his characters as compelling as his ideas.

Neither flashy nor boring, Wilson’s writing style finds beauty in simplicity. His prose is polished until all that’s left is the bare essentials. It looks easy, but it’s not: even after decades of development, SF writers often has trouble finding a good balance between good fiction and good ideas. It helps that Wilson (not a scientist himself) understands and respects SF’s base assumptions as well as any other SF professional, while acknowledging how the world really works. Spin, for instance, shows a good understanding of the interplay between politics and business. It also recognizes that the instincts of SF readers aren’t those of the real world: Worldwide superstition and irrationality end up forming a core part of the book, despite the main character’s understanding of the situation.

There’s an elegance to this book that is difficult to describe in only a few short sentences. There are a few flaws (the lengthy rescue section, for instance, should have been shortened), but Spin leaves the reader fulfilled and entertained, just as any good science-fiction story should. It also demonstrates why Wilson is, in his own quietly spectacular way, one of the best writers in the business. Three of his four last novels have netted him Hugo nominations: this one won’t break the trend.

Blind Lake, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2003, 399 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30262-4

The most interesting thing about Robert Charles Wilson’s career is how he’s been able to re-invent himself and raise the quality of his work from very ordinary first novels to his current Hugo-award level. While Blind Lake may not be as good as The Chronoliths (even though opinions will certainly differ), it’s still a solid work of modern science-fiction from an author who knows what he’s doing.

It doesn’t start out all that promisingly, if by “promisingly” you mean “Ooh! I have to read this right away!”: We’ve seen top-secret scientific bases elsewhere in fiction, we’ve seen “remote viewing” elsewhere and we’ve seen marital strife elsewhere too. But just wait: From the first few pages (in which one of our protagonists lives the morning aftermath of a one-night stand copiously sprinkled with illicit substances), it’s obvious that this is one novel that is going to take its time and avoid the usual clichés of bygone SF. The novel quickly shapes itself around four characters: A divorced scientist chafing against the restraints of objectivity, her manipulative ex-husband, their troubled daughter and a journalist with plenty of accumulated guilt.

When those four characters are isolated from the real world, along with the rest of the staff at the “Blind Lake” scientific facility, tensions are left free to rise and boil over. The strife between the heroine and her ex-husband keep worsening, dragging along the sympathetic journalist. People are left to wonder why the entire world has cut them off. The daughter resumes having unusually persistent hallucinations. And the very purpose of the scientific facility changes when their subject of study (an alien they can track on its own planet thanks to a quasi-magical technology) dramatically changes its daily habits.

It’s not a story that can be summarized in a few exciting lines. But don’t worry: Wilson makes it ridiculously easy to be engrossed in the lives of its characters, and milks a lot of effective scenes out of low-key events. To an unusual degree, the characters take as much space as the plotting… not that the plotting is in any way deficient once things start rolling. The mysteries of the book are sustained just long enough to make us interested in reading the next page, then the one after that, and yet another… before you know it, you’ve read the whole thing in a straight afternoon.

Technically, Wilson has seldom been better, and it’s little tricks of the trade that show how much he has progressed since his early books. While he’s not a scientist, his novel is about scientists and he creates a believable bunch of them, along with the required technical and administrative support required in a modern research facility. He slights the jargon just right, with enough detail to satisfy and yet not too much to bore. (I was especially impressed by the way he described how the “mysterious” technology at the core of the book’s science got so weird: It’s still mysterious to the scientists in the story, but at least we as readers know exactly why it’s mysterious.) By shutting the real world out of the novel’s setting, Wilson is also able to use small hints and references (such as the “Saudi conflict” and the none-too-pleasant-sounding “North American economic confederacy”) to suggest a plausible future society without actually spending too much time describing it.

Not that the entire novel is so credible, of course; it’s hard to imagine the feasibility of a complete shutdown of data transfers, even less so an extended one. The ending of the book is also surprisingly tepid despite the scope of the revelations and the sense of a good story well-told. I suppose that different readers will have different impressions.

This being said, I found a delicious parallel between the plight of the isolated scientists, watching an alien far way, and the possibility that they themselves had to be watched by the rest of the world outside their perimeter. And yet another parallel with us, readers, watching them in their fishbowl…

I wouldn’t have read the novel so quickly after its release had it not been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo Award. But having done so, I find it ranking pleasantly high on my list of 2003 SF novels. After such great books as The Perseids and The Chrononolith, Wilson continues his winning streak with Blind Lake. I wonder: what’s next for him?

The Perseids and Other Stories, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2000, 224 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87524-X

From a sequence of unremarkable early novels re-using the traditional tropes of Science Fiction in indifferent fashions, Robert Charles Wilson has matured in a far more interesting SF writer. Staring from The Harvest, continuing with Mysterium and then on to his “Tor books” (Bios, Darwinia, The Chronoliths), Wilson has become steadily more ambitious and the impact of his novels has increased along with the author’s improving skills.

Now, Tor has confirmed their faith in Wilson by publishing this collection of his short stories. The surprise isn’t that the book is a good one (any Wilson fan could have predicted this), but how much, even as Wilson sets out to write science-fiction, the cumulative impact of these stories is much, much closer to horror.

There are nine stories in The Perseids, three of them written specially for this collection and the other spanning a a publication period running from 1995 to 1999. For American readers, this collection fulfils an essential purpose in bringing together stories that hadn’t previously been available south of the border: Four stories had previously appeared in Canadian SF/Horror anthologies whose American distribution was, at best, lacking. There is one Aurora-winning short story in the bunch, along with the Hugo and Nebula-nominated “Divided by Infinity”.

While Wilson claims that all the stories are loosely related by a common link (the presence, explicit or not, of a used bookstore called “Finders”), the links are very loose, with a multiplicity of dark, strange creatures inhabiting the crevices of our reality. You could make a better case that the stories are united by their chilling impact; while billed as SF, The Perseids is closer to a horror anthology, as every story has an uneasy edge to it, usually topped by a glimpse behind the comfortable illusion of our reality. There are other similitudes, mind you: most stories feature lonely, unapproachable protagonists (usually men, usually bouncing back from failed relationships), a fascination for the esoteric and frequent acknowledgements to science-fiction itself. As acknowledged by the ominous cover montage, the city Toronto itself usually prefigures as a constant background to the stories.

Of the nine stories, the best may very well be the Hugo-nominated “Divided by Infinity”, which could previously be found in the original Tor anthology Starlight 2. It offers a nifty literary “what if?”, follows it up with a Big Catastrophe and concludes with a cute SF twist that pushes quite a few assumptions to the limit. Also very strong is the Aurora-nominated title story, which mixes occult knowledge with, again, a bit of SFictional existential horror to memorable impact.

Conversely, I wasn’t so taken with either “The Observer” (an alien abduction story with some neat historical cameos) or the concluding “Pearl Baby” (which didn’t have much of a point despite tying together many of the sub-threads of the book), but it’s worth noting that either of those stories remained far more interesting and accessible than most of the stories on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Another of The Perseids‘s wonders is that, even despite the dour protagonists and the spine-chilling conclusions, it’s never a depressing book. The horrors are offset by the magnitude of their revelations, almost as if SF’s sense of wonder could compensate for the terror of the unknown forces. It also helps that Wilson’s style is never less than limpid, with just enough style to add to the prose without distracting from the story itself.

In short, there’s a lot to like in The Perseids regardless of whether you’re already a fan of Wilson’s fiction or not. It’s certainly one of his strongest books, free of the curious structural problems that plagued books like Darwinia and Bios. The stories all pack an interesting wonder or two, while acknowledging their debt to previous science-fiction (essentially; playing to the crowd). Torontonians should be more pleased than most to see how their city prefigures in the collection (sometimes as a part of the story itself, such as in “The Inner Inner City”) while everyone else, regardless of their origins, should get a kick out of a snappy, solid anthology.

The Chronoliths, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2001, 301 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87384-0

Any reader who’s been following the career of Robert Charles Wilson has been surprised more than once before. Wilson has transformed himself from a mid-level SF writer heavily relying on stock premises (Gypsies, The Divide) to someone capable of moderately entertaining riffs on familiar concepts (The Harvest, Mysterium) to more original novels hampered by significant problems (Darwinia, Bios). Now here comes Wilson’s most original and most satisfying novel yet, The Chronoliths.

It certainly begins with a bang, as a monolith materializes in the middle of Thailand and further examination reveals that it’s a memorial to a military victory… twenty years in the future. No one can figure out how it got there and what it’s made of. Before long, though, other monoliths are appearing, celebrating other victories, always twenty years in the future.

The novel also begins with an emotional bang of sort for our narrator Scott Warden, whose carefree manners finally catch up to him, resulting in a serious debilitating injury for his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. As the narrative advances, Warden will find himself increasingly enmeshed in the mystery of the Chronoliths, with significant impact on his family and friends.

There is no better way to hook a reader than with a fascinating mystery, and so The Chronoliths revolves around a big secret; the origins of the huge blue monuments that appear out of nowhere, creating considerable destruction over a large area. (It doesn’t help when they appear in densely-populated areas) Wilson plays well and plays fair with readers’ expectations, and the overall resolution of the enigma is rushed but satisfying. As with some of the finest time-travel thrillers, there is a delicious sense of impending doom, and the curious structure of the story essentially pre-loads the narrative with the dramatic confrontations that make the flashiest parts of the story irrelevant and so left to a few throwaway lines. Don’t be mystified; just read the book and you’ll be satisfied at how well it unconventionally comes together.

It helps, of course, that Wilson knows how to write polished, limpid prose. Warden’s narration is easy to read, peppered with tense moments and filled with telling details. This is a book you can reasonably read in a single day; chances are that you’ll be so absorbed in the narrative that the though of doing anything else will seem absurd.

For a writer who has only broken out of contemporary narratives with his last book (Bios, which took place in an appreciably distant future), Wilson does a fine job at setting up his future. The Chronoliths takes place over a touch more than a decade and its sense of social evolution is quite intriguing. After The Chronoliths, Bios seems even more of a successful writing experiment to help Wilson break out in new directions.

You could quibble with the ubiquitous presence of the narrator in the various events of the Chronolith saga, but amusingly enough, Wilson anticipates the objection with some hand-waving about how everything links together in mysterious ways (In fact, the novel’s second paragraph is “Nothing is coincidental. I know that now.”) Cute. Works for me.

Add the cool cover illustration by Jim Burns and you’ve got one of the finest SF novels of 2001. Wilson’s continued growth as a writer has finally produced a great SF novel without the caveats of his previous work. The Chronoliths is a best-of-career high for him, and a most encouraging portent of things to come. If you still haven’t read anything by Robert Charles Wilson, this is the place to start. If you’re already a fan, well, go forth and get it, already!

Bios, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 1999, 208 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86857-X

Those poor, poor SF authors.

Earning a living -in any discipline- takes a lot of hard work. In the SF field, it takes more than that: dedication, creativity and a sense of how to please a crowd.

And the SF crowd is one of the worst there is. It’s not enough to give them an interesting concept wrapped in a good story. No, they ask for memorable characters, clear writing, snappy dialogue and good value for their money.

As a result, current SF authors have to uphold the professionalism developed in the fields ever since the pulp era. SF, like it or not, has become a small professional industry, and as with any pop culture product, readers can be expected to demand more for their entertainment dollars.

In most ways, Robert Charles Wilson’s Bios is a fine piece of Science-Fiction. The premise itself is intriguing: In a future where interstellar space travel is hideously expensive, humans have found one planet with a full biological ecology: Isis. The only problem; Isis’s natural ecosystem is “spectacularly toxic” to Earth life. “The entire planet is a permanent Level Four hot zone” promises the cover blurb.

Fun stuff, especially given Wilson’s initial premise. Bios‘s protagonist, Zoe Fisher, is sent on one of those all-too-expensive trips to Isis, where she is to undergo testing as a human built to be resistant to the hostile biosphere. Meanwhile, scientists stationed on and above Isis begin to see increasing levels of viral outbreaks inside “safe” areas. Something is happening, and it doesn’t promise anything good.

All throughout, Wilson builds his imagined future with an admirable economy. In a short time, he establishes the future dystopia that is Bios‘s universe, what with its new aristocracy, its pitiless corporations/political parties and overall aura of nastiness. This is the first time that one of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels explicitly takes place in an appreciably distant future, (he’s previously meddled a lot with alternate universes or futuristic element in contemporary settings) and he’s up to the difficult task of world-building with an assured professionalism.

His writing is also clear and to the point. Bios can be read compulsively, with its short length and dynamic storytelling. There is a memorable outbreak scene halfway through the book, and the final pages also pack a lot of interesting material. Few novel from Wilson are obscurely written up to the point of being uninteresting (Gypsies being the only notable exception) and Bios is even more engaging than its predecessors.

But, as his previous novel Darwinia suffered from a rather spectacular structural failure, Bios‘s considerable strengths must be tempered with significant warnings. The premise outlined above might lead readers to imagine a certain plot. Unfortunately, that is pretty much exactly what you get, especially if you’re familiar with the sense of doomed gloominess present in some of Wilson’s work.

To this predictability, let’s also be crassly commercial and point out that Bios‘s snappiness and readability is matched by its slim physical size: at barely more than 200 pages, Bios is almost half the length of today’s average SF novel. (But, at $32.95 Can, still fully the price of today’s SF novel) This is no breakneck densely-textured novel like Ian MacLeod or Greg Egan’s usual output: Once you start looking at the story with the assumption that this is a padded novella, yes, extrataneous parts seem to rise out of the novel. Unfortunately, there is as of now no market for SF novellas. Was Bios padded from a story too long to be novella and too short to be a satisfying novel? That’s a question to ask Robert Charles Wilson at the next SF convention.

[August 2000:  I did, and he graciously answered that Bios, from the start, was planned as a novel, “though it ended a bit short.” (He also rightly pointed out that it would have been a perfect length twenty, thirty years ago)]

In the meantime, Bios remains a worthwhile read, but not a worthwhile buy. Consider a paperback purchase if you’re a confirmed fan (keeping in mind that Wilson tries new things here, and succeeds), or else head for your local library.

Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 1998 (1999 reprint), 372 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56662-9

This is a weird book, and this will be a weird review.

For the biggest element of Darwinia -its biggest surprise, its biggest flaw, its biggest virtue- is structural. Just mentioning its existence is in itself a spoiler. For Darwinia is book that start out being one story, and then ends up being a totally different story.

As the book begins, something dreadful happens to Europe. The old continent is… replaced by something straight out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel; a strange land roughly similar from a geological point of view, but with a completely different ecology. Of course, all previous traces of humanity have disappeared.

Eight years later, a young photographer named Guiford Law embarks for the old/new continent of Darwinia. After leaving his wife and child in the brand-new settlement of New London, the expedition of which he is part go deep in the mainland, where they’ll find—

Well, they don’t find anything as much as something find them, but that distinction is moot given that this is the moment where the book changes gears on the reader and a whole new paradigm is imposed on us.

It’s not exactly that the new paradigm does not work, because it does (and it does work better than the promise shown by the first half of the book), but rather because it is insufficiently integrated with the rest of the book. Darwinia‘s first 140 pages is a drawn-out narrative detailing Guilford’s expedition. The rest of the book is much more free-ranging, skipping across years and events in a blink and presenting a fragmented view of the story that doesn’t mesh with the slow-paced beginning.

Then, of course, the story moves in a direction that is both interesting, yet ill-suited to Wilson’s writing style. He is too pondered, too atmospheric to deal with a The Stand type of story. He can’t build a good-versus-evil epic with vignettes. While the latter part of the novel shows promise and delivers satisfaction, the mind boggles at what another author would have been able to do with Wilson’s premise.

(A few readers will recognize that Darwinia’s latter part seems to have been inspired by Frank Tippler’s The Physics of Immortality, though much better handled that some other recent similarly-themed SF like Pohl’s Eschcaton trilogy. It’s also no small wonder if Darwinia also shares significant similarities with his own Hugo-nominated story “Divided by Infinity”, recently published in Starlight 2.)

The result, as the introduction to this review makes clear, is very weird; the kind of novel critics like to give A- for effort and C for execution. Darwinia is an interesting half-success, for it shows how difficult it is to build a successful novel. It’s not enough to have a good ideas (or, in this case, two good ideas), and a few good characters. It’s not enough to be able to write well. It’s not enough to be able to put your characters though difficult times. You also have to do it consistently for a whole 300-pages book, and that takes some work. That’s something that few people will notice when it’s done well, but that everyone will criticize if it’s not entirely successful.

The Divide, Robert Charles Wilson

Bantam Spectra, 1990, 249 pages, C$10.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-26655-3

Intelligence -and higher intelligence- has always been of interest to SF writers and readers. Maybe it’s because of the usual belief that persons interested in SF are, on average, more intelligent than the common person. Maybe it’s because highly intelligent protagonists suffer from a sense of alienation akin to what the usual SF fan feels. Or maybe because it’s SF’s job to fulfil fantasies… and being smarter is probably high on everyone’s list of fantasies.

But high intelligence is often seen as much of a handicap than a blessing. From Stapleton’s Odd John (referenced to in The Divide) onward, high intelligence is a source of pain and misery. The Divide takes the normal/high intelligence difference further by creating a protagonist with multiple personalities: one of average wits, the other… definitely not.

Robert Charles Wilson has never been a particularly inventive author with his premises. (Although his latest, Darwinia, is an exception) You can almost pick off the major themes he explored book-by-book: Time-travel/cyborgs in A Bridge of Time, alien invasions/metaphysical transcendence in The Harvest, parallel universes/alternate histories in Mysterium

But Wilson more than makes up for his pedestrian subjects by treating them with a sensitivity uncommon in SF. The characters in his stories are almost always fully realized, depicted like real humans, and given the chance to exhibits genuine traits. What’s more, Wilson writes with a commendable clarity: His books are difficult to put down because their narrative intensity -even for low-key novels!- is so strong.

The Divide might not be Wilson’s best work (for reasons soon explained), but it is certainly a pleasant read. For a contemporary novel with a low body-count and a sentimental approach, The Divide grips its reader in the opening pages and doesn’t let go.

John Shaw is the product of a secret government project (gee!) conducted thirty years ago to enhance human intelligence. When the project was disbanded, John was put in a foster home. Twenty-five years later, the scientist in charge of the project thinks that John is in trouble-and he’s not far from the truth: John Shaw’s mind has created Benjamin, an averagely-smart alter-ego. But now, Benjamin is taking over…

As the scientist’s assistant tracks down John and Benjamin’s intrusion in John’s life are becoming more and more frequent, stakes are raised with the arrival of the brother of John/Benjamin’s girlfriend-a dangerously unbalanced young man with a troubling history of violence.

In lesser hands, The Divide might have been an insipid rehash of old plots, stale Freudian (or Jungian) stereotypes and a sappy love story. But Wilson is aware of these pitfalls and the novel weaves well between these pitfalls. The only disappointment comes at the end, where the books ends up more like a trashy Hollywood thriller (fight in an abandonned warehouse, etc, etc…) than what we might have expected from the book so far.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty solid choice for anyone interested in Canadian science-fiction, Robert Charles Wilson or “quiet” science-fiction in general. The Divide has tremendous potential to reach outside the borders of the genre. Toronto citizens will enjoy the cover illustration, in whose background the CN tower is hit by lightning…