Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Chronoliths

[Let's not even talk about my extended absence; let's just get on with our lives]

Robert Charles Wilson was familiar to me only by connection with the other giant of Canadian science fiction, Robert J Sawyer, whose novels I had read and discarded due to sheer incompetence of prose and dialogue. They were often mentioned together, and thanks to my unpleasant experiences with Sawyer, I avoided Wilson. What a mistake.

I saw the book at my library, with its epic-looking cover, and the blurb on the jacket reminded me of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, specifically the awesome Time Tombs. So I picked up
The Chronoliths and started it.

A huge monolith suddenly appears in Thailand, made of a unfamiliar substance, marked with the celebration of a military victory twenty years in the future. Scotty, a programmer and American expatriate, is there to witness its sudden and cataclysmic arrival. The message on the Chronolith has ominous implications for the world. Who is this "Kuin" who is said to conquer this area of Thailand? Where does he or it come from? How can people stop him?

In a quiet and understated way, Wilson uses Scotty to examine what a prophecy of inevitable doom would spell for the world, in terms of sociological, economical and psychological implications. Never grandiose, never epic, but always intelligent and demur, the prose in this novel slowly unravels the mystery at heart. Along the way, it does what great science fiction does, and that's explore what it means to society as a whole, and how technology (no matter how seemingly magical) shapes and influences it.

The resolution, of course, is not what you expect, but on the other hand, exactly what you expect, the true mark of skill in an author. The conclusion must inevitably come from the nature of the characters, and not from a radical variant introduced at a critical stage. Not only is this true of Scotty, the protagonist, but of the entire human race.

This was a terrific novel that used time travel in a unique way. The audience never sees the mechanism of the time travel, but it is heavily implied in a clever way. Wilson kept me interested the entire way.

If I had a complaint with this novel, it's Wilson's prose. It never leaps of the page, it never reveals even a moment of joy or fear. It's languid and the words just plod along, simply recording the events. Now, this might be an intrinsic part of the plot, as the novel's main theme is of determinism, but still.... What happens to Madame Bovary is inevitable, but Flaubert still makes the sentences dance when they need to.

The Chronoliths is a good hard science fiction novel and of interest to those who love time travel. Since I fall into that camp, it was... inevitable that I read this.

[Ugh. Anyways, thanks for coming back to a lay of the land, if you come back]

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