I tend to look forward to each new novel by Robert Charles Wilson with the expectation of, at the very least, intelligent entertainment. I still rate Spin a true masterwork of sf, and while its two follow-up novels weren‘t brilliant, I still liked Axis for its romantic sense of adventure and Vortex for its sheer conceptual grandeur. And Julian Comstock might have been flawed, but it is nevertheless enormously fun to read.
However, Burning Paradise puts a serious dent in my optimism about Wilson’s novels. It is not per se a bad novel – it’s well-paced, with an original and engaging sfnal idea and serviceable main characters. But at the same time, it amplifies everything that is bland, facile and predictable about Wilson’s writing. It feels like a book that, in an attempt to please, takes all the easy ways out of its interesting dilemmas, while adding some half-hearted, pulpy horror elements as stand-ins for grit.
So what is Burning Paradise about? Its alternate history concept is actually pretty cool: around the beginning of the 20th century, the timeline of earth in this novel starts to diverge significantly from ours. Wars and major political crises have been averted by a worldwide culture of de-escalation and, often enough, by sheer coincidence. In 2014, the year the novel is set in, people on earth celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Great Armistice that ended the last real war. The world still has its share of smaller military conflicts, but they always seem to fizzle out.
Another major difference between our world and the world of Burning Paradise is the so-called radio-propagative layer around earth that amplifies and propagates all radio signals, so that they can be received all around the world.
What most people don‘t know is that the radio-propagative layer is in fact a lifeform that envelops earth and influences humanity by subtly altering its radio transmissions. As it seems, only a small international group of scientists and intellectuals calling itself „the Correspondence Society“ is aware of this. These people, most of them academics who have found their research into certain fields misterously blocked and chose to investigate, have been playing at conspiracy for a few decades. Calling the lifeform „the hypercolony“, they are convinced that it is a kind of hive entity without true intelligence or consciousness – but with the evolved ability to manipulate intelligent species and mimick their language and even their appearance. The Corresponcence Society is convinced that the century of relative peace that humanity has enjoyed has been engineered by the hypercolony to further its own ends – whatever they may be. Most members of the society were happy doing their research and keeping their mouths shut, never messing with the hypercolony itself. That changed in 2007: so-called sims, soulless, human-looking things created by the hypercolony, target and eliminate most of the leading minds of the Society. The rest go into hiding, most of them just keeping their head down. But for some of them, it’s war from now on – humanities first real war in a long time.
We get all of this backstory relatively early in the book, which is a smart move. Instead of trying to build suspense by teasing the big reveal, Wilson reveals pretty much everything at the beginning and then goes on to explore the concept. Or so I expected, but there’s actually very little exploration happening.
The first big disapppointment is how little Wilson makes of his alternate history scenario – apart from what we hear from the news and the apparent (and logical) lack of advanced computer and space flight technology, this world doesn‘t seem very removed from our own. Its general culture is pretty similar – which is a hard pill to swallow, if we imagine that the most defining event of the 20th century, World War 2, never took place. To be fair, we spend most of the time with protagonists who are on the run and try to avoid contact with pretty much everyone outside of their circle of co-conspirators, so as readers, we might never learn about most of the changes; however, it looks as if Wilson had deliberately set out to construct a narrative that allowed him to show us as little as possible of this alternate earth, and that begs the question why he decided to make this an AH novel in the first place.
There are other elements of the novel that truly stretch credulity. For example, it seems pretty strange that all members of the corresponcence society are absolutely convinced that the century of relative peace on earth is the hypercolony’s work. These are academics and humanists – should not at least some of them consider the possibility that human culture has simply evolved beyond big-scale military conflicts? That reason has finally won? There is, after all, very little compelling evidence about how exactly the hypercolony changed human history. Should the exact nature of its influence not at least be a matter of debate? If I found out about an alien entity manipulating humanity, I would certainly not jump to the conclusion that that must be the explanation for the current era of peace and stability. Psychologically, this would only make sense for someone who knows how the actual history of the 20th century played out.
Then there is the notion of the non-intelligence of the hypercolony, that also seems to be shared by everyone in the Correspondence Society, even though it is based simply on the analogy of the insect state. This might have brought up some interesting questions about how we define consciousness, and how we can know if something has a consciousness, if not from its behaviour. After all, the hypercolony-created, human-looking sims do act like humans most of the time;. We are told time and again that this is an act, a lie, and not even that – it is mimicry, a strategy that has developed through evolution, without a conscious mind behind it. And surely, as soon as the sims are discovered, they drop the act and behave as perfect soldiers of the hypercolony, with no emotions, no soul and no regard for their own life.
While the sims as individuals are time and again convincingly revealed to be inhuman, they still act as if there was an intelligence behind their actions, using them as flesh puppets. However, even that possibility is time and again denied by all point-of-view characters of the novel. Everyone seems to be absolutely convinced that only mimicry is at work.
But how believable is the notion that the hypercolony is non-intelligent, that it is only mimicking consciousness to interact mor
e efficiently with humanity? If, for example, the hypercolonies use of language is simply a matter of evolutionary adaptation, should the trial and error involved not have led to the discovery of the hypercolony by humans long ago? Is it even imaginable that something like the use of language can be „learned“ by biological mimicry – within the lifetime of any given human language – without the workings of a mind that actually can understand and reflect on its symbolical dimension? Can language be successfully „mimicked“ in that way?
The whole concept seems so flimsy that I half-expected the whole story the Corresponcence Society tells itself to fly apart at some point in the novel. How come that no one has ever investigated the sims, who have been present on earth at least for decades and are not only significantly different from humans on a biological level, but also have to be born by unknowing human mothers? Surely, there is something like pre-natal ultra-sound checkups in this world, so a child with green goo instead of a brain should kind of stick out even before birth.
While we do find out that the Society doesn‘t know the full picture, everything it does suspect about the hypercolony turns out to be true. I did praise Wilson for giving us all the relevant information about his novum right in the beginning, and I‘m not saying that I expected some big reveal; but I would have expected him to explore the ambivalences of his concept.
To be fair, there is another conceptual thread in the novel that turns out to be less about the difficulties in defining the nature of consciousness and more about the ironies of war and freedom. It is made pretty clear that some members of the correspondence society actually long for war with the hypercolony, or maybe just for any war, and that they resent the hypercolony for pulling humanities teeth. In the end, the most bellicose Society member turns out to be the one who has been most manipulated by the hypercolony; and the main message of the book seems to be that the best soldiers among the Society are exactly like the sims they despise: They are calm, ruthless and selfless in their actions, like members of a hive-identity that care in no way for their individual survival. So the irony would be that humanities fight to be free from the hypercolony will lead only to humanity becoming more like the hypercolony – instead of being „preyed“ upon in a most benevolent way by a mindless alien insect-god, it will brutally and equally mindlessly prey upon itself. I appreciate this message as a deconstruction of soldierly virtues; however, it is delivered pretty heavy-handedly, and, again, sorely lacks complexity.
Maybe I‘m coming down a little hard on this book, since, on top of it all, I really find its halfway approving depiction of conspiracy theories rather misguided; while it is true that Burning Paradise satirizes the self-important conspiracy theorist who considers himself at war, it also vindicates the narcissistic mindset of conspiracy theorists in general, without casting any doubt on the notion of partaking in some secret knowledge. This is a political objection against Wilson’s novel that not everyone will share.
I haven‘t lost a word about any of the characters in Burning Paradise; the reason being that, while they are all serviceable and act more or less believably, there is nothing very interesting about them. There’s teenage love and estranged love, there’s anger and there are hidden qualities that may not be qualities after all; all of this is depicted pretty well and should at least be engaging on a human level, but it just didn‘t click with me. In the end, the only thing Burning Paradise really has going for it is suspense – it gets into the thick of it pretty much from page one and doesn‘t let up. But I‘ve really come to expect more from Wilson.