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The Chronoliths
Robert Charles Wilson
Tor Books, 301 pages


Jim Burns
The Chronoliths
Robert Charles Wilson
From his first novel, A Hidden Place (1986), through to his latest, Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of entertaining books. They include Darwinia (1998), Memory Wire (1987), Gypsies (1989), The Divide (1990), A Bridge of Years (1991), The Harvest (1992) and Mysterium (1994) -- the latter winning the Philip K. Dick Award. Most reviewers compare his work to that of Clifford Simak.

Robert Charles Wilson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Perseids and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Darwinia
Robert Charles Wilson Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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The novels and stories of Robert Charles Wilson always seem animated by a vast ominous irony. Their canny abyssal perspectives make the world as we know it, and life as we define it, seem shaky conceptions indeed; in recent years, Wilson has posited an alternate history in which Gnosticism quite casually displaced Catholicism (Mysterium), the displacement of post-Victorian Europe by a perverse malignant Eden (Darwinia), a scenario in which all "higher" forms of life are an evolutionary misstep (Bios), and a host of Lovecraftian slitherings under the scrim of normality (The Perseids). All of these exercises in unease have been philosophically gripping in general terms, salutary reminders of our mortal precariousness; but The Chronoliths has a particular if unintended aptness for the year 2001, an especial directness to the existential jugular. In the year of ultimate terrorism, it is a novel about ultimate terrorism; and its logic is inexorable, terrifying. The only comfort is that (at least at this stage) no sanguinary messiah will be able to replicate the ultimate terrorist tactics it portrays...

But the intimidatory psychology of Kuin, the apparent mastermind behind the world's torment in The Chronoliths, is familiar. It involves demolition and monuments. The demolition is predictable enough, targeting major cities and centres of economic activity. But two crucial differences kick in thereafter: first, whatever buildings are destroyed, whatever Towers, twin or otherwise, are toppled, they are replaced with gigantic (and nominally constructive) formal monuments to the power of the destroyer; and second, it is not the hot breath of mediaeval fundamentalism that blows across Wilson's world, but rather an icy wind from the future. Kuin is seemingly a global conqueror of the 2040s; he celebrates each of his (putative) military victories by ramming a great and indestructible statue or obelisk in his name twenty years into his past. The 2020s and 2030s are in his retrospective shadow, awed, horrified, coerced into fulfillment of Kuin's prophecies. Terror is absolute, or almost...

Wilson's scenario is one of the most original in recent SF, and its accidental topicality only serves to complement the audacious precision of this novel's thriller structure. The Chronoliths is very much about how individual destiny is dictated by history yet dictates and defies history in turn; if the single looming figure of Kuin can manipulate the past, why can't some present agency -- some superficially ordinary person or group of people -- manipulate the future? The concept of Fate is subjected to a rigorous inquisition by Wilson, higher physics and personal heroism the criteria of his challenge; and so The Chronoliths is a melancholy, self-questioning, sometimes stubbornly mundane first-person account of life in the Kuin decades by a rather average yet scientifically enlightened man who quite randomly has become critical to the novel's paradoxical transtemporal feedback loop. It is just possible that Genghiz Khan can be short-circuited by Everyman; and Wilson plays suspensefully (and deceptively) with the David-and-Goliath tension that ensues.

Scott Warden is an impulsive and unlucky man who, resident among the shifty expatriate beach bohemians of the Thai coast, is affected by the backwash of the first Chronolith's arrival nearby. Over the next twenty years, he, his estranged wife, his handicapped daughter Kaitlin, a resourceful drug dealer of their acquaintance, and the members of a US government team investigating Kuin's endless series of cyclopean apparitions find themselves caught in a curious dance of coincidences, the gambits by which Time sutures or reconfigures itself. Marital schisms and parental anxieties somehow mesh with the mechanics of emerging world history; this linkage is sustained, affecting, and fascinating; and Wilson, ever prone to shading his texts with vertiginous disillusionment, vouchsafes his protagonist a final direly-won wisdom, and his reader the moral that time cannot heal all wounds, although it may repair some. The Chronoliths is an enthralling yet sobering tour de force.

And so Robert Charles Wilson has again spun his disconcerting web of paradox and paranoia, disorientation through disaster. The Chronoliths, like Darwinia, is a giant hammer blow -- terse, subtle, unremitting -- to the ground the reader stands on. After the quake, who knows what will rise in our stead?

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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