By publication order, Blind Lake is book-ended by The Chronoliths, arguably the best novel Robert Charles Wilson had written up to that point, and Spin, arguably the best novel he has ever written. From the perspective of today, that makes it seem like somewhat of an after-the-fact middle-child, which made me wonder if it would read the same way.
Published in 2003, the novel takes place at the fictional Blind Lake National Research Laboratory, somewhere in Minnesota, a few decades hence. Alien life has finally and conclusively been discovered, but perhaps more mysterious is the way in which it was discovered. The best, most powerful telescopes ever built had actually reached the point of getting a close look at alien, life-bearing planets of distant stars, but they were breaking down. In the face of imminent hardware failure, a temporary software solution was implemented, to compensate for the worsening image quality and grab as much data as possible before shut-down.
This solution involved quantum computers and self-evolving code, and performed better than anyone’s expectations. For you see, the images kept getting better. And then, someone pointed out that the telescopes had stopped transmitting data, but the computers were still providing information about what was happening on these planets. No one understood how it was possible. But there it was: a constant video stream as if seen from a magical quantum camera transmitting across light years of space.
Wilson, as is his wont, expertly paints a portrait of a world only a little removed from our own, in which a fundamental shift in the human view of the universe has occurred, and people simply accept it and continue on with their lives. This is done in a way that, of course, makes perfect sense — is, in point of fact, apparently quite inevitable. Isn’t it human nature to adapt and continue on?
This is all background, however. The narrative itself is focused on a handful of people, trapped in Blind Lake together because of a military quarantine that nobody is able to explain. These include scientist Marguerite, her mildly autistic daughter Tess, and her emotionally abusive ex-husband Ray. Also Chris, a science writer recovering, or failing to do, from an emotional trauma that may or may not have broken him permanently, not to mention several other lesser but still well-drawn characters.
I’ve said plenty about the heart-breaking humanity of Wilson’s writing. All that goes without saying here; the writing and story are both up to the standards set in The Chronoliths and Spin. What I’ve emphasized less are his bona fides as a deep-thinking, hard science fiction writer. It’s almost invisible. Because of his very literary style — showing not telling, focusing on human actions, interactions, and reactions — the poorly camouflaged info-dump simply doesn’t exist here.
If the reader pays attention to the hints that are dropped, the little bits of unforced exposition that are there, it’s clear Wilson knows something about the real science behind his ideas, as well as the classic science fictional tropes he’s drawn on. He’s built a rational narrative structure atop this underlying big-idea logic and doesn’t feel the need to explain it all in detail, to beat the reader over the head with it. But take a closer look if you like — it’s solid; it all hangs together.
I first encountered Robert Charles Wilson in a listing for his novel Darwinia in the monthly catalogue for the Science Fiction Book Club. It sounded like it would be great, but I ultimately chose something else for that month’s order. Years later I was equally entranced by the description for Blind Lake, even recognizing the author name, but passed it up in favor of another title. Finally when I read the blurb for Spin I decided to give Wilson a try. Spin immediately turned out to be a new all-time favourite, and I thought back to previous Wilson works I’d missed. It’s taken me this long to stumble across a copy of Blind Lake, and it still takes me back in time, even earlier than its own publication, to my high school days when I pored over those thin paper catalogues.
I would have enjoyed it then, if I’d gotten it when I first had the chance. I enjoyed it now.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.