Robert Charles Wilson is fast becoming the guy I pull out when I want to stealth-gift SF to my non-genre friends. It used to be Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon, but it’s nice to be able to point to someone firmly in the genre as an example of some of the finest writing being done today, period.
It’s true, you win a Hugo and suddenly everybody’s taking notice. I’ll admit that Spin, the completely deserving 2006 Best Novel winner, actually was my first introduction to the author. In my defense, I read the first-edition hardcover before the buzz began — and well before the Hugo nominees were announced — so I’m not a complete hanger-on.
But Wilson has been publishing since the 1980s, so those of us who are latecomers to his work might well wonder what we’ve been missing. With Tor coming out with new editions of some of his previous novels, it seemed a perfect opportunity for me to find out.
The Chronoliths was first published in 2001, while the story is set not quite two decades after that. As the first chapter begins, we find ourselves in the company of Scott Warden, an American expatriate in Thailand who’s spent much of the previous night arguing with his wife. Scott decides on impulse to tag along with the somewhat disreputable Hitch Paley, to take a look-see at the source of some loud noises and strange rumours near Chumphon overnight.
Skirting an army blockade, what they discover (before being arrested) is something impossible. A man-shaped structure on an epic scale, apparently built overnight. The two of them get to be amongst the first in the world to see what will be front page news within days. And later, they’ll find out the meaning of its faint Chinese inscription: the commemoration of a military conquest twenty years in the future.
It turns out this monument is only the first. Scott follows the news as more and more of them “arrive” — some in the middle of large cities, leaving massive destruction in their wake. They come to be known as Kuins, after the supposed future conqueror of all these places and, presumably, the erector of the monuments. But they’re also referred to as chronoliths, from the Greek words for “time” and “stone.” Not only are they stones from out of time. They seem like they may actually be stones made of time.
The next twenty years will see economies becoming increasingly depressed and societies increasingly unstable under the burden of foreknowledge. Are the Kuins simply portents of the future, or, by the sense of inevitability they promote, do they actually create the kind of world out of which a Kuin figure could arise?
These heady metaphysical implications are explored through their social effects more than any lengthy philosophizing. Scott grows to hate the Kuins when his fateful decision to go off that day with Hitch turns out to be the last straw for his strained marriage (though he also saves plenty of recrimination for himself). For the rest of the world, however, it’s less personal. The semi-mythical Kuin is alternately a military target or a holy figure.
As in Spin, our hero Scotty tells the story in his own words. Wilson’s great strength as a writer is his well-drawn characters, whose basic believability anchor even the most fantastic plots. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his first-person narratives. In Scott Warden, we have basically an ordinary, well-meaning guy, who is simply trying to weather the storm of a rapidly destabilizing world and protect his loved ones. He’s not interested in challenging the forces of history or influencing world events. Yet he’s someone whose fate is inextricably tied to the chronoliths, even as he’s simply trying to survive them.
During many of the critical events of the novel, there’s a palpable sense of history being witnessed. Because the narrative takes the form of a memoir written years later, the gift of hindsight only reinforces this feeling, which often feels like the oppressive weight of predestination. Written simply as Big Idea SF, Wilson’s forced causality, temporal feedback loops, and “tau turbulence” stands up as well as anything by Greg Bear, or, for that matter, any number of destiny-laden high fantasies. But where those kinds of works might naturally culminate in a fated confrontation, The Chronoliths — a perfect example of Wilson’s trademark marriage of the science fictional with the literary — does not.
Wilson prefers to tell the story of Scotty not because he will be the saviour of the human race, but because he is so very much of the human race. A final confrontation will happen — off-stage. The person at the centre of that encounter is someone who understands destiny and duty and courage — and who has completely lost touch with everyday concerns. But Scotty is not the genius scientist or intelligence agent who will save the day. He’s us. Just trying to get along. Just trying, in a world falling apart, to keep doing what’s right.
And that’s what keeps a reader turning the page. The science fictional idea is both epic and unique, but it’s not really the point. In the end, the plot’s big reveal is only implied. A final climactic twist, a neatly tied-off explanation or moral of the story isn’t necessary. Because this isn’t primarily the tale of the chronoliths and their turbulent wash of causality, but the human beings in the churn beneath. And, like us, Wilson just wants to find out if they’re going to be okay.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.