Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths was a pre 9/11 novel. Its fractured world torn apart by the shadow of extremism and financial decline is extremely prescient.
In The Chronoliths, giant monuments appear in major cities across the world commemorating their conquest by a dictator named Kuin twenty years in the future. The monuments are indestructible but cause mass destruction and panic. The public is terrified waiting for the next one to show up every year, but some are attracted to Kuin.
Like the ISIS kids now, they wear Kuin clothes, join groups and run away from home to go on Haj and form brutal militias. Society is fractured between high level Adapt and Prosper collaborators who want to surrender to Kuin and a militarized government that pours money into trying to stop a seemingly invincible threat.
Kuin never puts out a political program. He might not even exist. But the teens who want to support him read their own programs into the chronoliths. It’s the idea of changing the world and creating stability that drives them.
Robert Charles Wilson writes about ordinary people caught in strange temporal events. He writes with the casual insight of memoir fiction about things like alternative universes and time travel that most science fiction writers don’t like to touch. And he makes the world of The Chronoliths seem amazingly relevant to ours.
Wilson not only nails the post-cyberpunk Amazon world in which the big data gig is predicting people’s behavior, but the fear and uncertainty of a declining America where the youngest generation is willing to turn to mass murder in a search for identity and meaning.
It’s a world with a wide generational gap, a dwindling middle class, the loss of privacy and security that faces a war against an unstoppable dictator from the future who conquers by terrorizing the past and builds shadow armies by tearing apart nations.
The Chronoliths vision of a divided America panicked by global terrorism, the end of privacy, financial collapse, teenage extremism and cities torn apart in ways that closely resemble 9/11 is amazingly prescient for a pre-9/11 novel.
It’s one of the very few Science Fiction novels to talk about where we actually are.
And its failure to win the Hugo for Best Novel over the fangirls and status seekers who gave it to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods foreshadowed the controversies that would turn the Hugo into a joke.
The Chronoliths isn’t Wilson’s best novel, but like Vinge’s End of the Rainbow, it’s one of the few that seems to capture where we’re headed. It’s hard to look at the beheadings, the teens running away from major cities to join militias and not think of the way that an uncertain future drives people to find certainty in brutality and terrorism.