Burning Paradise

Robert Charles Wilson is a master at blowing up dominant paradigms, at crashing complacent human continuity. A lot of science fiction does so — or tries to do so — with mixed success. The esthetic and thematic goals of such work have always been to show that everything which we in our mundane, routinized, shortsighted existence assume to be eternal is anything but. Change happens — often when we least expect it — and sometimes the new way of existence isn’t definably better or worse but just very, very different.

In his award-winning trilogy that began with Spin, Wilson didn’t think big, oh no. He merely enfolded the entire Earth in a kind of space-time bubble, then endowed the planet with a giant stargate leading to wonders. And that was just in the first volume. In Julian Comstock, Wilson employed one of the most potent paradigm killers — the collapse of civilization — but then twisted it around brilliantly to produce a future, out-of-the-ashes milieu that replayed Colonial America via a sort of lateral genius.

His newest offering, Burning Paradise, is an alternate history tale mated with a Fortean novel. Both aspects provide lots of unpredictable frissons that work harmoniously to produce something utterly strange. But while uchronias are pretty familiar these days, novels inspired by Charles Fort are rather less common and deserve an introduction.

A dyed-in-the-wool contrarian, an autodidact and sometime journalist, Fort (1874–1932) was a curious fellow who got the notion to compile items of what we might call “weird news.”  But not humorous squibs where, say, a bank robber writes his threatening note on the back of his own utility bill. No, Fort liked to ponder rains of frogs and instances of spontaneous combustion, phenomena that invalidated consensus truths. When he had amassed enough of these, he produced four books and an intellectual schema to explain such “suppressed” oddities. His elaborate paranoid conspiracy theories included the notion that “mankind is property,” ruled by hidden beings.

Fort’s work became highly influential, harbinger of a kind of early New Age/Occult/Crank Science/Queen-Elizabeth-Is-a- Space-Lizard gestalt, a novel way of interpreting reality’s untidy corners. Fort was the grandfather to a million Richard Shavers, Erich von Danikens, and Whitley Striebers. (Today, the Fortean Society carries on his legacy.) His books found a welcoming home in science fiction, influencing such writers as Robert Heinlein (“Goldfish Bowl”) and Colin Wilson (The Mind Parasites). But the best examples of Fort’s ideas were two novels by Eric Frank Russell, once a leading light of the genre but generally forgotten today. Sinister Barrier and Dreadful Sanctuary turned Fort’s notions into highly exciting, mind-boggling stories about aliens intent on keeping humanity down.

Robert Charles Wilson begins with a similar premise, revealed early on, so it’s no spoiler to his plot’s suspense to spill it here.

The year is 2014, but an era divergent from ours in many ways. The divergence is due to one major thing: Earth is surrounded by a “radio-reflective layer” or “radio-propagative layer” or radiosphere. This stratum is composed not of pure energy but of minute sophisticated orbital  particles that, working together, host a hive intelligence. This interstellar sentience is a life form that propagates itself from solar system to solar system with the aid of local inhabitants. But to reproduce itself, the “hypercolony” must first domesticate the locals to do its bidding.

The cultivation of humans has been going on since the early twentieth century. As soon as humanity learned to produce radio waves, their signals were filtered through the radiosphere and the message content subtly changed, to promote intersocial harmony and certain technologies. In addition to this remote guidance of humanity’s proclivities, the hypercolony can produce “sims,” creatures that look outwardly human but are simply manipulative extensions on Earth of the hypercolony, filled with green goo. (The biological method by which this is accomplished is revealed gradually and is a smartly conceived shocker.)

All of this Secret Masters manipulation is of course unknown to the masses. But over the years there arose the blandly named Correspondence Society, a loose, elite network of scholars who began to intuit and ferret out the truth. Finally, in 2007, the hypercolony reacted to protect itself, decimating the Society and sending its surviving members into desperate hiding — including the Society’s leader, the obsessive, merciless, and clever Werner Beck. (And can that surname be anything other than a nod to a certain TV pundit in our own dimension?)

Two youngsters named Cassie and Thomas were left orphaned by the 2007 massacre. They’ve been living with their aunt, Nerissa Iverson, ever since. In the opening scene, a sim comes after the kids, and they bolt according to fallback planning. Hooking up with Leo Beck, Werner’s adult and wayward son, and Leo’s girlfriend, Beth, the quartet begin a frantic cross-country journey toward Walter Beck’s refuge.

Meanwhile, Ethan Iverson, Nerissa’s estranged husband, receives his own visit from a sim. But this strange specimen is not aggressive and maintains that the hypercolony is now divided into two factions, and that one faction wishes to be humanity’s ally, not its master. Soon, Nerissa and Ethan are heading to Werner’s, also. What awaits the humans afterward, in the Atacama Desert of Chile, is a fate they could not foresee, and a new day for our species.

Wilson’s talent for building fully realized human characters is prominently on display here. The shifting interplay among the quartet of young people — Cassie, proper yet with inner depths; Leo, all rebel without a cause — is mirrored in the touchy relationship between Ethan and Nerissa. When the runaways meet up with one of Werner Beck’s “soldiers,” an eccentric hermit named Eugene Dowd, a new dynamic is introduced. Likewise when the whole task force assembles. Bouncing from viewpoint to viewpoint, Wilson teases out all the ways of emotionally and rationally reacting to the hidden knowledge of the aliens above.

The two aspects of Wilson’s novel — uchronia and Fortean — are well balanced but not exactly equal. The alternate reality track gets less attention. Wilson is not concerned with the kind of thick counterfactual world building of, say, a Harry Turtledove. He’s content to let slip a few resonant touchstones: “Adlai Stevenson High School,” “The Voorhis administration.” There’s no Internet in this timeline, as computers are still at roughly the early-1960s stage. The top-of-the-line commercial airliner is a “four-prop” model. And so on. Basically, Wilson sketches out a simpler, more idyllic world, which brings to mind some of the observations contained in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. What factors conduce to an absence of war and violence, and what does such a world look like? Of course, the peace in this case has been mandated from above and, being artificial, cannot last.

One intriguing aspect of Wilson’s alternate history is a twenty-first-century zeitgeist-born desire to undo the horrible mess that was the twentieth century. One sees the subconscious impulse at play in similar recent work by Terry Bisson (Any Day Now), Christopher Priest (The Separation), and Kathleen Ann Goonan (This Shared Dream).

But the Fortean track is the one Wilson really wants to concentrate on, giving us an admirably old-school, EC-comics paranoid fright ride. The presence of the sims is, naturally, an homage to Jack Finney’s classic The Body Snatchers. The way they die, with a splatter of green goo, harks back to gleeful cinematic somatic horror like The Blob. Wilson, always simpatico with the bucolic worldview of Clifford Simak, might have had Simak’s Way Station, with its benevolent hidden network of interstellar transit spots and their human caretakers, in mind. His book is kind of the flip side. Certainly Frank Herbert’s depiction of a colony consciousness in Hellstrom’s Hive is relevant. And the creepy notion of humanity being merely bawd and handmaiden in the reproduction of another species reminds me of James Tiptree’s bleak “A Momentary Taste of Being.” Wilson’s book exudes a similar chill.

Ultimately, Wilson is not content with destroying our old paradigm via the back-story of the novel but has to blow up the very subcreation he’s instantiated in its place. Wilson affirms that this ceaseless revolution toward greater freedom and wisdom — “The Last Unspeakable Truth” is the title of the book’s Epilogue — is, however painful, the only fit course for an individual and a civilization and a species.