Thursday, 27 March 2014

Robert Charles Wilson, Burning Paradise


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.

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