by Robert Charles Wilson
Published by Tor
301 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Considering the big idea at the heart of The Chronoliths, it's surprising how low-key Robert Charles Wilson's novel actually is. An enigmatic warlord from the future, Kuin, is sending giant monuments some 20 years into the past at the sites of his victories. Their arrival is physically, psychologically and socially destructive. Some of them appear in the middle of cities, almost completely obliterating them. This is not some vague cosmic mysticism big idea: this is a big idea that hits you right where you live, disrupts the fragile social fabric and totally fucks up your life.
The media quickly dubs these structures "chronoliths" and the name sticks. Hordes of people, dissatisfied with the status quo, with the state of the economy, or simply with their aimless lives, become Kuinists, awaiting the arrival of the liberating conqueror who can pierce the veil of time. Imagine: waiting for a prophet who has provided undeniable physical evidence of his coming. Religions are based on less than this. In a hopeless near-future, such a figure could easily become a focus of widespread fanatical belief. Wilson plays up this social process with sober restraint: the movement only very slowly gains momentum, especially as the 20-year gap between the appearance of the first chronolith and the date of its inscription closes.
In fact, Wilson shows sober restraint throughout this carefully told novel. No matter how intense or frenetic the action or events get, Wilson lets the novel itself unfold at its own pace and carefully avoids confusing the novel with its plot. It's all too common for writers (not to mention editors and critics) to confuse "plot" and "characterization" for story. Wilson avoids this pitfall with graceful confidence. In science fiction, "idea" also sometimes overwhelms "story." Wilson comes perilously close to letting that happen on a few occasions (especially when scientists start monologuing), but -- just barely -- he manages to avoid falling into the trap of pausing the novel to show off his clever idea, as many lesser writers would have. Here, Wilson, with consummate skill, folds characters, ideas, themes, plot, scenes, observation, reflection and all the other elements that make a rich novel into the novel itself, careful not to let any jagged edges poke out.
Wilson situates his characters neither at the epicenter of events nor far removed from it. He chooses a peripheral perspective that is close enough to the world-changing events to allow for revelatory insights but far enough for mystery to linger even after the last page is turned. His main protagonist, Scott, witnesses the first chronolith. The chronoliths, with all their reality-altering implications, make governments more paranoid than ever, and Scott's life -- along with that of many others -- is henceforth under the microscope. Coincidentally (or is it?), he is also an old friend of the woman who becomes the world's leading expert on chronoliths. As time progresses, the Kuinist movement gets all too close to his family. Against his will, Scott is repeatedly dragged into events involving the chronoliths.
Scott is not a would-be hero, a revolutionary, a radical, or even a deep thinker or an exceptionally caring man. He's just a regular guy who wishes nothing more than to carve out a good life with his family and not have to ask himself too many questions all the time. He just wants to fit into a comfortable slot and be surrounded by people he loves who love him back.
Scott is not a particularly inspiring or memorable character but he is convincingly real, as is the supporting cast. There are a few eccentrics around, but for the most part Wilson's novel is populated with ordinary people who want nothing more than an ordinary life in less-than-ordinary circumstances. Wilson does not glorify or judge these people, he simply describes them and their actions, with a careful balancing act of detachment and empathy.
The only major problem I had with this book was how everyone seemed to take the chronoliths at face value. No one questioned the authenticity of the inscriptions and their pronouncements of future victories. These was no speculation or investigation as to other possible origins for these apocalyptic monuments. Could they be from an alternate dimension? Or a hoax perpetrated by extraterrestrials or by an earthbound megalomaniac group in the present with access to some new technology? Or... I don't know, but something else. I just didn't buy that there were neither heated debates about the nature of chronoliths nor competing physicists vying for the prominence of their theories over those of others. It seemed unlikely that everyone simply believed that the inscriptions were what they claimed to be.
That one caveat aside, The Chronoliths is a thoughtful novel, told with relaxed confidence. It gives big SF ideas and quiet human moments equal time. It is itself a chronolith of sorts: an artifact of future times that invites reflection on the present. | October 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.