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Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson book review


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.

Roddenberry’s Star Trek Pitch a Little Too Wedded to Alternate Earths

The original Star Trek pitch. This isn’t actually new, but blogs think anything that wasn’t on the internet before is new. So okay it’s new. If you haven’t read Stephen Whitfield, it’s new to you.

What’s interesting about the pitch is that there are stories here that are better than many of the actual episodes that got made. And others that read better than the way they were implemented. But also that Roddenberry was focused more on using alternate earths to comment on our earth, than on space exploration. It’s almost as if Roddenberry was trying to make Sliders or Gateways, not Star Trek.

Which begs the question why didn’t Roddenberry jettison the starship and just build a gateway that his explorers could move through. Maybe he didn’t see the contradiction of taking a starship to explore other earths. Back in the 1960’s, parallel earths in space weren’t considered as crazy in Science Fiction.

Star Trek didn’t actually have all that many parallel earths, though the ones we did have were too many. President Capone was awkwardly explained as coming about because of a book left behind, not because this was a planet where Capone actually took office. Going to Rome or watching Yanks and Coms fight each other was equally embarrassing. What Star Trek did best was comment on human nature, instead of naked attempts to comment on history.

Empty Cities of the Full Moon by Howard V. Hendrix

Howard V. Hendrix’s “Empty Cities of the Full Moon” mixes speculation on the borders of new age ideas about shamanism and human nature with good old\new fashioned Science Fiction premises that include quantum theory, alternative universes and microbiology.

At the heart of it, “Empty Cities of the Full Moon” boasts a single crucial new idea, adjusting Frank Tipler’s Omega Point theory which describes the state of affairs at the end of the universe when an infinite amount of energy becomes available for informational processing to reflect the parallel universes– no longer limited by a single universe waiting for the end– thus enabling parallel universe processing permitting an infinite amount of energy to become available for informational processing even long before the Omega Point of the Big Crunch is reached so that once contact is made between alternate universes– the effective liberation of an infinite amount of energy to be employed for informational processing is achieved.

This requires the opening alternate universe split that occurs at the very beginning of the novel, in which a car accident claims the lives of a number of people in one universe– while sparing them in another. Among them is John Drinan, who passes into the alternate universe where the story takes place– a universe where he died as a child and none of his relatives and family know who he is or believe that he is who he says he is.

Left to wander as a homeless vagrant trying to convince someone he is telling the truth, John Drinan and his dog encounter Mark Fornash at one of the drumming circles that are appearing everywhere. After hearing Drinan’s story, Fornash who works as a technical employee at a biotech company run by Tomoko Fukuda, offers Drinan a role as an experimental test subject in Fukuda’s new drug trials. Tomoko Fukuda had developed an idea for using prions to serve as a worldwide cure for mental illness.

Even as Fukuda’s group works on the cure and tests them on subjects around the world, a rhythmic drumming fever is spreading around the world. Crowds gather to drum and tap going into ecstatic frenzies and even developing visual stigmata. Sister Vena who is in charge of the drug trials in India observes the stigmata which prefigure more fundamental bodily changes or shapeshifting. In South Africa, Lieutenant Leira Losaba investigates attacks by shapeshifted humans who have taken on the forms of extinct animals. She realizes that the shapeshifting humans are taking on the shapes of animals of their imagination. Meanwhile Mark Fornash attempts to gather interest in his theory which describes the drumming mania as the shamanic complex taking hold of humanity aided by the prions used in Fukuda’s treatments. Fukuda’s ex-husband meanwhile, Simon Lingham, in the World Health Organization attempts to explain the outbreak by more conventional means.

A conference organized by billionaire Cameron Spires brings together all of them for the first time. In the aftermath, Spires provides each of them with a button they can push to be immediately evacuated. As the cities collapse in orgies of death and destruction and war breaks out between shapeshifters and ordinary humans and the military, the survivors are each evacuated– Lingham from the burning remains of the Royal Observatory, Losaba and Vena from pursuit by mobs of shapeshifted humans whom Losaba had been hunting down and so on.

Bubble boy billionaire Cameron Spires, who has chosen to separate himself from humanity by dwelling apart in contained conditions, had purchased Fukuda’s company and evacuates himself in a giant floating bubble to a Bahamas hideway. This ends the period of 2032 and completes the fall of humanity. The cities are abandoned. The human population drops precipitously. What remains of humanity is mostly located in the Truhuman enclave of Spires Bahaman islands and the werfolk outside, shapeshifted humans who use drugs and drumming to experience ecstatic transformations or ‘soulflying’ and raid the island in pursuit of the longlife that will enable them to extend their lives.

Working backward and forward, the narrative of “Empty Cities of the Full Moon” moves through time telling a single story, but one that is refracted through multiple characters across time.Trillian Spires, grand-daughter of Cameron Spires, leaves her grandfather’s hideway in pursuit of Ricardo, her lover, who has been infected with a new strain of the syndrome after protesting Cameron Spires policies. They follow the route taken by Simon Lingham, who had himself abandoned Spires’ totalitarian kingdom to find a new path. Along the way they meet up and join with John Drinan, working at an abandoned space complex in Florida in hopes of relaunching a spacecraft and returning to his own universe as well as some Werfolk.

One by one in their journey that leads them to New York City, they encounter the remaining members of the group and see how they have fitted themselves into the post-apocalyptic world. Leira Losaba who saw the atrocities of the shapeshifters has become a sort of general leading the Knights Ex Libris, Knights of he Library, soldier librarians determined to preserve human knowledge and restore human civilization while wiping out the merfolk. Sister Vena presides over a monastery filled with nuns, The Sisters of the Easefull Death via a recorded mental image and helps dying werfolk achieve an easy death. Tomaka Fukuda conducts medical research and provides medical care.

Their path traveled by road and boat along the United States eastern coastline finally leads them to Manhattan and the New York Public Library and the GNOMES, Gödelian Non-standard Optimized Market Evolution Systems, human minds melded with machines and each other, to become something other than human who hold the key to the unlocking of Parallel Processing and the final evolution and transformation of humanity.

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