As aforementioned on this blog, I wanted to give Robert Charles Wilson another try. I was dazzled by his earlier novel The Chronoliths, by his clever and subtlety, and the clearness of his prose. With that in mind, I took it upon myself to read Blind Lake, and here is what I thought of it.
At Blind Lake, there is a vast and inscrutable machine that used quantum computing to derive an image from an obsolete satellite array. That image is of an alien subject, living on an alien world, hundreds of light-years away. There is a whole community built around this machine, a whole town, populated by laypeople and scientists, among whom number Ray, his ex-wife Marguerite and their daughter Tess. However, something happens, and the whole town goes under lockdown, no one in or out, save for automated supply trucks. Any attempt to leave results in death at the hands of programmed drones. But something is happening down in the machine, and something is happening with the alien subject. Could all of this be related?
Just like in The Chronoliths, the synopsis is beguiling and misleading. This is a novel both about what I just summarized, and not about it at all. At the top, it is a character study of a cast of normal humans thrust into a stressful and dramatic situation. It is also a very careful study of the Uncertainty Principle - one cannot observe something without changing it irrevocably.
I absolutely adored this novel and I read it in a matter of days. Wilson's characters and prose are textbook perfect. This is obviously a novel carefully designed, and has gone through a million drafts. The craftsmanship is obvious from the onset.
What elevates this novel beyond simple science fiction thriller is the clear warm love of pure science, of observation, testing, experimenting, hypothesizing and tentative conclusions, with never a chance for a definitive answer. Wilson's scientific thesis reminds me sort of Dan Simmon's extraordinary Hyperion Cantos, in which the "villains" of the piece turned out to be godlike machines with power over time and space, a consciousness so alien that any attempts to understand would be the definition of futile.
Wilson's (and Simmons') concept that alien consciousness is exactly that, alien, is a theme used by Stanislaw Lem, and Wilson uses that theme expertly. As mentioned above, this novel starts out as one thing, the observation of an alien who could possibly be understood, and ends as something else entirely, something much bigger and deeper and unfathomable.
This is proper science fiction. Blind Lake deals with some of the most tried and true concepts from its genre, and without a twist. This is pure distilled and refined speculative fiction, written with grace and careful consideration, and it shows with every single page.
However, all is not perfect with the novel. There are a couple missteps. Certainly the climax could have used a bit more... well... something. I wasn't sure I had reached the climax until it had abruptly ended. The seemingly unstoppable buildup to the end fizzled out and left me slightly disappointed.
The climax of Blind Lake does not mar the reading experience I had. Wilson's prose, characters, science and speculation are clearly birthed from intelligence and a very strong understanding of stories. In fact, stories and narratives become a part of this novel, in a very human way. I absolutely loved reading this book, and I cannot wait to read my next Robert Charles Wilson novel.
Which is in queue at the library. To tide me over until I can get my hands on it, I'm thinking of another Margaret Atwood... possibly Life Before Man or Cat's Eye.