To look at Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo-winning Spin and this year’s novel, Burning Paradise, one might conclude that the author has a fixation with spheres of mysterious origin surrounding the Earth. But the similarity in mechanics is superficial. The more important commonality between the two books is how the focus remains on the characters and how ordinary people respond to extraordinary events.
This time around, the alien element is the so-called radiosphere, a layer of the atmosphere that reflects radio signals and amplifies their reach around the globe. Only a handful of people in the world are aware that this handy feature isn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon, but rather an extraterrestrial entity known as the hypercolony. This complex life form doesn’t provide its services out of the kindness of its (non-existent) heart, of course. It turns out that it’s not only been eavesdropping on humanity’s telecommunications, but subtly modifying the messages that are being transmitted.
Right away there’s something different going on here than in Spin. In contrast to the Hypotheticals of the Spin trilogy, the hypercolony is directly involved in the development of mankind. By exercising its influence on communications by radio, television, or telephone, the alien entity has dampened humanity’s more belligerent tendencies. Burning Paradise opens in the near future of an alternate history where there hasn’t been a significant armed conflict since The Great War.
The book doesn’t linger on the consequences of the great peace, but they are always there in the background. It’s a world devoid of the advances that were driven by Cold War competitiveness. There’s no space program — forget putting a man on the moon; there isn’t even GPS. The Internet never developed; mobile phones don’t exist; faxing is still a thing people do. And of course the League of Nations, that staple of alt-history stories, is still going strong.
The hypercolony makes for an intriguing adversary. As an alien, it is truly alien, having more in common with an anthill than our typical notion of an intergalactic visitor. As in Peter Watts’s Blindsight, Wilson explores what it’s like to be up against a species without individual, or even group, consciousness. Even though the hypercolony is able to take human form to communicate with our protagonists and present a reasonable facsimile of human behaviour, its true motivations are fundamentally unrelatable.
There are a lot of ideas at work here, with Wilson casting his net wide enough to bring questions about parasitism and symbiotic relationships into the mix. The structure of the story itself, though, is a fairly straightforward quest narrative, wrapped in a layer of paranoia inherent to the members of the secret society who know about the hypercolony. It’s an interesting choice, and it keeps things moving along even though the main point-of-view characters are in the dark about the goals of the quest for much of the book. But I’m not sure that it’s a good match for the constellation of concerns that Burning Paradise is built around.
That is to say, while the denouement of the quest is satisfying enough on its own terms, and the character beats feel genuine, the novel as a whole doesn’t resolve many of its more intriguing questions. But when I reached the last page I found myself wondering if Wilson might have given us a different window on these events. While it makes sense to focus on the journey we do see, I couldn’t help feeling that something compelling lay just outside the frame.
But then again, maybe that’s intentional. For it’s a sign of success that I’m still turning over these ideas in my head and itching to pursue one or two of them further — in particular, the intersection between the Big Brother aspect of the hypercolony and their century-long pacifying agenda. It isn’t something that the characters in Burning Paradise’s universe could comment on, and Wilson doesn’t put it front-and-center in the novel, but there’s surely an analogy to life in the age of PRISM lurking under those let’s-kill-Hitler clothes, and maybe a lesson waiting for the characters to learn, somewhere after the last page.