Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson [Library of Babel]

I've gotten out of the habit of blogging about the books I read for fun here, mostly because I've gotten out of the habit of reading for fun. Not for lack of desire, but because between my job and the kids and the massive amounts of research reading for the book-in-progress, I haven't had time.

Of course, I make the occasional exception, and when one of my very favorite SF authors comes out with a new one, that's a great reason to read a little fiction. Robert Charles Wilson isn't the most prolific author, but he's consistently excellent, and always thought-provoking, so I was very happy to see a new book from him at the tail end of last year.

This is an alternate-world story with an interesting twist: in the run-up to what in our world was WWI, scientists discovered a "radio-propagative layer" in the upper atmosphere, that allowed radio signals to bounce over vastly greater distances than in our world. This became essential for international communication and diplomacy, and through such communications, the Great War was avoided. In 2014, the world has enjoyed a century of peace and prosperity, and is gearing up for a celebration.

Except... That peace has come with a price. A small group of scientists and academics, calling themselves the "Correspondence Society" has discovered that the radio-propagative layer is, in fact, an alien organism, the "hypercolony" made up of vast numbers of nanomachines that subtly alter communications passing through the layer, manipulating human civilization. This has led to the century of peace, but people who get too close to questions touching on the hypercolony find their careers ruined. And in 2007, an army of alien simulacra attacked the Correspondence Society's principal members, killing most of them, and driving the survivors into hiding.

The main characters of this are survivors of that attack, chiefly the orphaned 19-year-old Cassie Klyne and her brother Thomas, now living in Buffalo with their aunt Nerissa. When Cassie spots an alien simulacrum coming toward her apartment, she grabs Thomas and goes on the run with another child of survivors. Their flight inadvertently triggers a number of long-standing plans, and as Nerissa and her ex-husband Ethan chase after Cassie and Thomas, events build toward a climax with more wide-ranging consequences than anyone could've anticipated.

Wilson's great strength as a writer is his mixing of high-concept SF ideas with intensely personal stories, and this book is no exception. The "hypercolony" idea is a wonderful conceit, providing not only a great vehicle for a thriller plot but a platform for musings about the nature of consciousness. These are fascinating, but don't overwhelm the story, so it's like a vastly less annoying version of Peter Watts's Blindsight. They're also largely background to the story of Cassie and Thomas on the run, and Nerissa and Ethan trying to catch up with them. He does a great job of getting inside the head of both a couple of scared kids on the run (who aren't quite as smart and capable as they initially thought) and the scarred adults trying to head off a catastrophe.

This isn't quite to the level of Spin, Wilson's best work, but it's very good. I found it a little disconcerting that the plot shares a climatic moment with a film that came out last year (which I won't name to avoid spoilers), but it does make sense within the context of the story. And Wilson's resolution to the story and the grand sweep of events is more optimistic than I would've expected. I can't quite decide if that optimism is fully justified within the story, but on a meta level, I liked seeing a more upbeat ending.

I'm going to the Worldcon in London this year, so I'm eligible to nominate for the Hugos; this is probably the most Hugo-worthy novel I've read that's eligible. The only thing that makes me hesitant to nominate it is that I've read so few eligible novels...

Anyway, this is billed as "Robert Charles Wilson writes a thriller novel," and that's pretty much exactly what you get. It moves along briskly, with plenty of action, great personal stories, and some excellent Big Ideas in the background. I enjoyed it a lot, as I expected to, and definitely recommend reading it.


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The title also makes an excellent viral meme about climate change.

But don't look now, reality is keeping up with fiction:

Since I don't know if you allow posting links: go to wired.co.uk and look for the article "Google+ app monitors your video calls and tells you what to say." (If Google creates its own version, look out for "Alice, it appears that Bob needs to be entertained. Why not suggest that he rent Planet of the Apes XXVII from Amazon?" Then the next-gen version will actually insert a synthesized video clip of Alice making the suggestion to Bob, and Bob won't know if it's really Alice or if it's the Google Borg's simulation. Meanwhile Alice will see Bob making a similar suggestion to her.)

Internet = global radio propagation.
"The cloud" = that layer in the sky.
Millions of people using the above app or similar = the Hypercolony subtly altering communications to manipulate human interaction.

The Hypercolony could also be seen as a metaphor for the merger of the traditional sky-god religions with the newly-emerging computer-god religions (e.g. the Singularity). This would be "interesting," as the computer-god religions presently lack the strong moral/ethical frameworks that exist in the sky-god religions.

Or the cigar could just be a cigar.