Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson – review

16059400 A new RCW novel is always welcome, though his chances of matching his form on the likes of The Chronoliths and Spin are slight. So I approach his work with anticipation and trepidation, knowing I will enjoy the read, not want it to end, and yet still be slightly disappointed overall.

I’ve tried to avoid actual plot spoilers, but if like me you prefer to approach something totally cold, you should definitely avoid parts of this review. What I’ve tried to do below is indicate, using italics, aspects of the novel you might prefer to work out for yourself.

Burning Paradise is set in an alternate 2014, 100 years after the Great War ended in Armistice – not after dragging on for years – but in a few months. The 20th and 21st centuries have played out differently: more peaceful, it’s true, but also with a much slower pace of technological development. There are no digital communications, no smartphones, no satellites.

World communication still depends upon the ionosphere (also known as the Heavyside Layer), which reflects radio signals around the globe. For a small group of people, however, radio and other electronic communications are out of the question. This apparently eccentric group, known as the Correspondence Society, are aware that the ionosphere is not what it seems.

Rather than a natural phenomenon, the properties of the radiosphere are sinister and alien. It is a parasitical “hyper colony”, surrounding the earth and deliberately altering communications to create the conditions it needs to thrive. Imagine if in today’s satellite communications, a slight delay allowed for digital pictures and messages to be subtly altered, manipulating events and responses to prevent unwelcome outcomes.

 World peace,  other words. Or, in the case of our reality, capitalist hegemony. In this secret world lives Cassie, teenage daughter of a murdered scientist, whose world comes (further) unravelled when a road accident indicates that their cover is blown.

Whereas Tim Powers (in Declare) imbued the Heavyside Layer with supernatural properties, RCW’s take on it is closer to traditional science fiction tropes concerning pod people, free will, and the true nature of humanity. If not quite pod people, Wilson’s “sims” are like plausible psychopaths, who can act human while feeling absolutely nothing.

As with many RCW novels, we have protagonists with family issues, we have long road trips, and we have a technological sublime that surpasses human understanding. There’s nothing here that RCW hasn’t done before in other ways, which is not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable read with pleasurable sentences and a plot that grips at times. The focus here is not on the alt.historical backdrop, which is merely sketched (much is left for the reader to work out), but on the characters and their relations with each other. Not as meaty or thought-provoking as Spin or Blind Lake, this is still intelligent speculative fiction, packed with ideas and calculated surprises.

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The 10 best science fiction films that haven’t been made

Cover of "The Chronoliths"

My daughter just published a list of the best science fiction films, and I told her she should publish another list: of films shouted out by my dad after I hit Publish; but that’s another story.

Older readers will know that I generally disdain what passes for moving image science fiction. It all tends towards fantasy, really, which is the world’s favourite genre. There are some good sciency fiction things out there, but that wouldn’t generally be filed under SF. For example, I love Pleasantville, in which a brother and sister end up living inside a 50s TV show; by the same token, something like The Truman Show tends to have more in common with some of the SF I’ve read than, say, Star Wars.

But my daughter got me thinking about great science fiction that has never yet become a film – maybe because the narrative arc would’t work for Hollywood, or because the state-of-the-art in visual effects isn’t there yet. But it’s getting there, I think. And there are plentiful rumours concerning the first two on my list.

  1. Ringworld. Larry Niven‘s 1970 science fiction novel has seen prequels and sequels a-plenty, enough to keep a Hollywood franchise going for a decade. It has been rumoured but never made. Narrative arc: it’s a road movie, so deal with it. Visual effects: biggest problem would be not the Ringworld itself, but Niven’s imaginative alien species: the cat-like Kzin (who are aggressive but always attack before they’re ready) and the three-headed Puppeteers (who are cowardly and very manipulative). They would tend to look too much like Farscape-style muppets. Probably.
  2. Rendezvous with Rama. Arthur C Clarke’s superior version of 2001 from 1973. The technological sublime, the mysteries of alien technology; and, with its sequels, enough for a franchise (the Ramans did everything in threes…). Narrative: yeah, apart from awe and mystery, what is there? Only a ticking time-bomb deadline of getting too close to the sun and a touch-and-go escape to safety. Visual FX: I can’t think of a problem here. Spoiler: no goofy aliens required.
  3. Unto Leviathan/Ship of Fools. I’ve written before about Richard Paul Russo‘s superb and disturbing novel about a generation ship whose crew has forgotten its original purpose. It has everything you’d want for a gripping science fiction yarn, and, for a standard-length novel there’s an amazing amount of material – enough for two films. The first would be the discovery of the abandoned colony on a planet; the second would be about the encounter with the empty alien ship. Narrative: has everything. Space opera, mystery, scary aliens, the horror, the horror. Visual FX: I would very much look forward to the stained-glass-window-in-space sequence.
  4. The Chronoliths. The first Robert Charles Wilson novel I read. All of them, probably, would make great films. In this story, giant monuments to a great leader start appearing all over the world – sent from the future. Narrative: at the centre of this immense vision of mind-bending self-fulfilling prophecy is a very human story of love and loss. Visual FX: the chronoliths themselves would present no problems. The biggest challenge would be the ageing of the main characters over time.
  5. Spin. While we’re in the Robert Charles Wilson department, this one is another perfect film in the making, and has two built-in sequels. Earth is suddenly isolated from the rest of the universe. Time outside the isolation passes much more quickly than on Earth itself. Society falls apart. Then a gate opens to another world… Narrative: huge, bewildering events anchored down, Wilson-style, with a story about human beings, politics, and friendship. Visual FX: easy, plus super-evolved humans from Mars, just for fun.
  6. The Holdfast Chronicles. Suzy McKee Charnas‘ classy series about a post-apocalyptic world in which men are mired in intergenerational conflict and keep women as slaves is a lesson in feminist SF for Margaret Atwood fans. There are four volumes, so it’s another built-in franchise. Volume 1 is Walk to the End of the World, in which one of the slaves escapes the city and discovers the free women living in the wilderness – without men. Narrative: huge adventure story with a powerful message. Visual FX: post apocalypto. With horses.
  7. Bears Discover Fire. Terry Bisson’s short story could easily be adapted into an indie-style film, with a subtle message about climate change and humanity’s relationship with nature. Narrative: a simple story about people and generations, with a backdrop of extraordinary events. Visual FX: bears who can make fire.
  8. The Forever War. Ridley Scott is rumoured to be working on an adaptation of Haldeman’s story about war and alienation, the mindlessness of the military and the psychological effects of time dilation. Again, a number of sequels, but let’s make it so, Ridley. Narrative: human soldiers in a conflict they cannot possibly understand. Visual FX: space, aliens, distant planets, time dilation, military hardware. (Alternatively: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.)
  9. Spirit. Gwyneth Jones’ space-opera version of The Count of Monte Cristo is an excellent story (obviously) of revenge told against a backdrop of her fully-realised future world of interstellar travel and alien encounters. Narrative: Count of Monte Cristo, yeah? Visual FX: Buonarotti faster-than-light travel, space stations, alien prisons, aliens. Lots for the make-up department to do.
  10. Beggars in Spain. A future world of genetic modification,  and social divisions between those who have it and those who don’t. What if we could engineer ourselves not to need sleep? What might we achieve? And what if we were immortal. Nancy Kress’ original novella and its various add-ons would make a great film. Narrative: human stories and huge social impacts. Visual FX: what does the world look like in 2091?