Robert Charles Wilson is the only modern Science Fiction writer who has made alternative universes his theme and writes about them intelligently. (The less said about Turtledove, the better.)
Wilson’s alternate universes are surprisingly quiet and personal places made up out of small town, residential houses and personal struggles. History takes place around them like an ocean passing around a piling, but the worlds are rooted in the small town house with the lit window and the man or woman behind the glass staying up late at night and considering their choices.
It’s been that way ever since the eighties and while Wilson has taken a few false steps recently with the Spin series, an oversized and poorly told set of novels that is outside his normal range, despite the praise they received (these days if a novel wins a Hugo you know it’s probably terrible and unreadable), he returns to familiar territory with Burning Paradise.
Burning Paradise is less obviously an alternate universe novel than it is a pod people novel, but that’s common enough for Wilson. Less commonly, Burning Paradise reads so much like a teen novel that I have to wonder if it wasn’t intended to be one. But it’s still a return to familiar Wilson territory with an alternate universe, ambiguous moral choices and lonely small towns.
The pod people or the sims, fake human beings controlled by the alien entity of the Radiosphere, give Burning Paradise more of a feeling that it’s out of time. Most of Wilson’s novels feel like they’re throwbacks to what Science Fiction might have become without the New Wave and the radiosphere, a field of living particles around the planet that also acts as a hive mind, reproducing itself by taking over an intelligent species, feels like an idea from the 50s renewed with more modern concepts.
Burning Paradise contrasts the biologies of two species, the competitive hive minds of the radiosphere who control communications and infiltrate the planet to impose their Pax Radiosphera on a world at peace, and the four children of the Correspondence Society, the only group of humans that is aware of the radiosphere and trying to fight it, along with a scientist who has spent time researching the radiosphere and his estranged wife and their aunt.
The Correspondence Society lives in a world built on a lie fed by television programs, radio transmissions and phone calls manipulated by the radiosphere. Its members dodge inhuman killers who look like ordinary people. And both the radiosphere and the humans converge on a single destiny.
Burning Paradise isn’t perfect, but it is interesting and while the plot twists can be guessed ahead of time, Robert Charles Wilson avoids the neat ending that the novel seems to be working toward and instead ends on a more ambiguous and human note.
The Spin series may have moved Wilson into the front rank in sales, but it’s good to see that he’s still doing what he does best with novels like Burning Paradise.