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…

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