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?

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