Robert Charles Wilson was one of my favorite authors about twenty years ago. I’ve found his more recent books less edifying than those from his early career. Those nominating him for awards don’t seem to differentiate. He exploded into top-shelf science fiction in 1986 with A Hidden Place, and hasn’t let up as a novelist since. Readers, critics, and peers still like him. I think other authors have bypassed him. I recommend his first half-dozen novels. This one, not so much.
I was trying to pin down what I found so dissatisfying about Burning Paradise. Mr Wilson is a lot more of a pessimist these days than in the 80’s. Of course, mainstream fiction is a lot different after 9/11. Everybody’s writing and selling dystopia. The problem is that the premise of this novel simply doesn’t fit dystopia.
Burning Paradise is an alternate history in which the Great War ended before Christmas 1914. No Great Depression, no fascism, no communism, no WWII, no nukes, no Cold War, no war on terror. World peace for a century with only a few small outbreaks of regional violence to remind people they are not sitting in a sinless Eden. But no large-scale war ever seems to gain traction on Planet Earth.
So a small group of conspiracy theorists uncover aliens manipulating human communication to accomplish this. Mean letters get lost. Static bleeps out key moments of anger. Border tussles get tamped down. Except for the fact that people experience no war, and a development of liberation decades before the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, and so on, this is somehow a bad thing because …
1. Human beings should self-determine if they want to blow each other to bits?
2. Some family members of the conspiracy theory minority were killed in 2007? (This is some parallel homage to 9/11.)
I like Robert Charles Wilson as a writer. His early novels had more depth, and a wistful melancholy. But I can’t buy this. Maybe the overthrow of our alien overlords could be played as a kind of quasi-Dante, “Better to reign in a hellish war than serve in a pacifist heaven.” That would have been damned interesting. But he doesn’t do that.
The book switches viewpoints between a nineteen-year-old girl and her back-to-nature scientist uncle. But we get no real depth from either person. Some conspiracies unravel as the book goes on, but the ones that weren’t predictable were face-palm material. The ending of the book was just plain bad.
On the plus side, Mr Wilson can sure plot a novel and pace it well. The story moved along and I found myself engaged to a degree. I was curious as to where this cross-continental trek from New York State to Chile was going to take me. Only three of the characters remain alive on the last page. The one who seems the most aloof has retreated into mourning, the one who may be the most bitter has found love and life, and one doesn’t seem to have changed at all.
I’m growing tired of dystopia. It’s old. I watched the first two film installments of Katniss Everdeen with the young miss earlier this month. Those movies were way better than this book. That teenage girl was written and acted so well compared to the protagonist of Burning Paradise. (Maybe they should never send a man to do a woman’s job?) But honestly, for most of the planet, the world isn’t that much different today than it was before 9/11. It just seems that it’s more cool to be pessimistic these days. Americans have gotten themselves bruised, so let’s milk that chip on our shoulder for all it’s worth.
I can dig pessimism. Just give me a story that delves deeply if you’re going to do it. And better characterization. And not so much mindless blood and gore. And real reasons for characters to act as they do. And don’t telegraph secrets so much. And write a more satisfying ending. And if there’s a choice between an alternate timeline of peace, and aliens invading and looking like humans, pick one of those ideas and run with it. Even if both separately are old hat science fiction, the two together, while unique, don’t really make this book an improvement on what has flown before.