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How Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths Predicted ISIS

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths was a pre 9/11 novel. Its fractured world 1920247torn 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.

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson book review

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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.

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