Sunday, March 23, 2008

Blind Lake, by Robert Charles Wilson

Blind Lake is the third novel by Robert Charles Wilson that I've read. It shares characteristics with both The Chronoliths and the Hugo Award winning Spin. In all three, people are the focus even when poorly understood crises are erupting around them. His work is among the finest "character oriented" sf I've ever read. His characters are real, and even when they make poor choices or do silly things, what they do is understandable. He has a wonderful quality of empathy for his characters that helps us understand them as well.

The set-up for Blind Lake is that a scientific research station is put under quarantine with no explanation. The one guy who tries to leave is killed. Food shipments are sent in by automatic armored vehicle, but the information quarantine is as strict as the physical quarantine. Everyone suspects that the situation must be related to the research they do: through a poorly understood evolution of quantum computing, they have been observing life on an alien planet. They have been closely following a single subject as he moves through life on his world. There's no communication between themselves and the alien, but they try to learn all they can about their biology, geology, sociology, civilization, etc. from their observations. As the quarantine continues for months, some in the community recommend shutting down the observatory, saying that it may be a source of danger. Other scientists can't possibly countenance such a course of action. Friction, inevitably, grows.

The idea that no one knows why the observatory works, or why the quarantine has been imposed, is a common theme in Wilson's work. In Chronoliths gigantic time-travelling monuments begin appearing all over the world. No one knows where they came from or how it is possible for them to time-travel. In Spin, some force imposes a quarantine on the entire Earth, isolating it from the rest of the universe. Time on Earth slows down relative to the rest of the universe, and no one can explain why or how such a thing could be done. In midst of all this crisis and uncertainty, the characters of these novels must find a way to muddle through somehow.

In Blind Lake we have a fairly large cast of characters. In later books Wilson would usually focus on one or two, but here we have at least four important main characters. Chris is a disgraced journalist, whose assignment to interview folks out at the secretive Blind Lake facility could either be one more excuse for failure or an opportunity for redemption. When he gets stuck there, he ends up striking up a relationship with Marguerite, mother of Tess and ex-wife of Ray. Marguerite is a serious scientist, trying to keep observations going through the crisis as well as dealing with her odd daughter. Tess may be the focus of some weird activity that may have something to do with the quarantine - or she may simply be troubled by her parents none too friendly divorce. Marguerite's job is complicated by the fact that her ex-husband is now the acting facility director of the compound, most of the senior management having gone to a conference prior to the quarantine's enactment. Ray is a very unpleasant individual, mean to his staff, paranoid, and completely enmeshed in power politics. In his asshole-ness he seems more a straw man than a real character. Wilson tries to write a convincingly banal middle-management jerk, but the parts written from Ray's perspective didn't ring true to me. Throughout the story, the main theme is humans trying to keep things together in the midst of crises and changes they don't understand - an over-dramatization of normal life. The scientific compound does not devolve into rioting and anarchy; instead they organize into a community and do the best they can. Everyone pitches in to a greater or lesser extent, and tries to keep things moving smoothly. The interpersonal conflicts: Ray and Marguerite manipulating each other and those around them, trying to care for Tess as best they can, Chris fighting his demons and dealing with his growing attraction to Marguerite, these are the things that loom largest in the narrative, and it's all very well done.

In the end we get an explanation of the entire situation, from the quarantine to the seemingly magical quantum observatory and the enigmatic alien society. In the other books by Wilson that I've read, this explanation was absent and still left a satisfying conclusion. Here though, the complete wrap-up is rewarding. To the extent that I have any misgivings about the book, they center around the science. In his techno-babble describing the advent of the quantum observatory Wilson happens to use the jargon of two fields I've done professional work in, neural networks and pattern recognition, so I unfortunately was not able to suspend my disbelief in that regard. I know how impossible what he's describing would be. In a completely minor note that didn't actually detract from my enjoyment of the book, after the descriptions of the alien that the observations follow, I kept picturing him as Dr. Zoidberg from the Futurama TV show. Not a problem at all, but it probably introduced a little more levity than the serious tone of the novel was going for.

In general this book is up to the high standards I expect from Robert Charles Wilson, and it is developing themes that he uses in his later books. In fact, in his more recent work he divorces himself from the need to satisfy hard-sf explanations; a lot of his crisis-inducing occurances are never really explained in the later novels, and I think those novels are stronger because of it. By satisfying the usual need to wrap up all the scientific loose ends in Blind Lake he ends up introducing errors and also a completely different thematic direction at the end of the book than is covered by the bulk of the book. It's a minor flaw, only noticable in comparison to the later novels. Still, there is no reason not to pick this book up, either as an introduction to Wilson's amazing humanistic style, probably the best character-centric sf on the market, or to continue to enjoy the oeuvre of this remarkable author.

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