Sunday, August 2, 2015

Review of The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Obsessed perhaps too strong a word and concerned certainly too light, expressing J.G. Ballard’s interest in humanity as it faces catastrophe is, suffice to say, involved.  The first four novels of his career delving into a variety of human responses to a selection of “environmental” disasters (the quotes due to the fourth, The Crystal World), Ballard openly stated in interviews that such scenarios were among the best means of cutting to the bone of psyche.  Apparently also a believer in such premises, Robert Charles Wilson penned The Chronoliths in 2001, and in doing so produced a text equal in quality to Ballard’s disaster novels, laying bare another perspective on humanity’s reaction to extreme change.

The Chronoliths is the story of Scott Warden, a down-on-his-luck husband and father who has the bright idea to forgo his career as a computer programmer and move his family to Thailand to research and write a book. The move failing in nearly every way, his daughter contracts a bacterial illness that destroys her hearing, his research never really takes shape, and he burns through more money than what he earns.  To top it all off, riding through the jungle one day he and erstwhile friend Hitch Paley are witness to the sudden and seemingly miraculous appearance of a strange ice-blue monolith.  By the time he’s done being interrogated by the Thai military and returned to Bangkok, Warden’s wife has left for the US and he must scrounge for money to get a ticket home.  Divorce proceedings awaiting his arrival stateside, he is forced to rebuild his career from the bottom.  Though maintaining a relationship with his daughter, the years grow more uncertain as one after another the extraordinary chronoliths appear around the globe.

Future dates commemorating war victories by a person named Kuin inscribed on the surface of the chronoliths, a strange cult evolves as more and more of the strange objects pop into existence.  The cult calling itself Kuinists, they move their tents and few meager possessions from chronolith to chronolith, waiting for the next blue pillar to transcend space-time and appear.  At times appearing in the middle of large urban areas and wiping out thousands of people and others appearing in the most rural of places, the randomness is a danger the group considers key to their beliefs.  Eventually becoming militant in defending their cult, the semi-religious reaction to the chronoliths becomes the crux of the plot. 

But the Kuinists are only part of the reaction.  Warden, based on the fact he was one of the earliest to come in contact with the chronoliths, is recruited by Professor Sue Chopra into her research program.  Obsessed with getting at the underlying science of the seemingly physics-defying objects, she and her team track the chronoliths relentlessly, gathering as much data as they can in the hope of getting an explanation that will stop the destruction the objects blindly cause.

Beyond character reaction, the chronoliths—though Wilson never openly gives any hints—reserve the right to be viewed as metaphors.  Like Ballard’s plot motivators, Wilson is aiming to represent extreme change to reality, and, given the novel is character-focused, existential reality.  Warden, Paley, and the others carefully and holistically presented, how each react is deserving of the nod to Ballard, but at the same time capable of  indicating Wilson is not a mere imitator.  His story is his own, as are the elements and the people who populate it.  Where Ballard created specimens, I might even argue that Wilson spans the gap to touch upon empathy.

It would be remiss not to mention the smoothness of prose and poignancy with which Wilson imbues The Chronoliths.  Scott Warden is not a perfect man, and Wilson never intends him as such.  Thus, the language used to render his rough character and rocky situation is suitably, affectingly refined.  In doing so, Wilson puts to shame his Canadian colleague Robert J. Sawyer for subtlety of style.  Where Sawyer delights in pop culture references and punchy sentences that in fact simplify what could be more complexly rendered ideas, Wilson stratifies his narrative with focused, intentional use of language that deepens the narrative beyond the initial splash of concept, much to his novel’s benefit.

In the end, The Chronoliths is a subdued but captivating look at humanity confronting a major change to perceived reality.  The latter portrayed by massive stone towers that randomly pop up around the globe, the evolution of humanity’s response in the decades that follow is presented through the eyes of a man for whom luck seems rarely a friend.  Wilson’s diction staid and elegant, he forgoes fireworks to tell an all-too-human story of a man and the world around him confronting a massive shift in possibility.  Jack McDevitt plumbed similar waters in Ancient Shores, but Wilson hangs more in line with Ballard’s The Drowned World or The Drought given the variety of reactions.

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