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!