Burning Paradise, by Robert Charles Wilson. Tor, 2013, 317 pp., $25.99
reviewed by Zeke Teflon
(mild spoilers follow)
The color of Burning Paradise‘s cover matches its tone: grey. The mood of the novel covers a narrow, grim emotional gamut–from sad to tense, with not much in between.
Burning Paradise‘s premise is promising: an intelligence inhabits the “radiosphere” (essentially the ionosphere on steroids, controlled by an alien hive-mind), and has prevented humanity from having a major war since 1914. There’s a very rich vein of possibilities in such a background, but Wilson doesn’t mine it. In fact, he barely touches on the possibilities. The world he describes is little different from the present, but for the lack of space travel, the Internet, and cell phones. Wilson provides no description of the possible positive, radically different features of such a world.
There is one major redeeming aspect of Burning Paradise, though: Cassie, the 18-year-old protagonist. She’s a well developed and believable character–and bringing such a character to life is no mean feat for a middle-aged male writer. Burning Paradise would very probably have been a better novel if Wilson had written it entirely from Cassie’s point of view. But he wrote it from multiple points of view, and the characters providing those viewpoints aren’t nearly as well developed as Cassie.
The action, briefly, begins with Cassie and her little brother Thomas on the run from “sims” (simulacra) controlled by the radiosphere. Similar “sims” murdered Cassie’s scientist parents, who were part of the “Correspondence Society” investigating radiosphere interference in human affairs. (The “sims” can pass as human for decades, and are distinguishable only via medical testing that would reveal that they have tiny, shrunken human organs, no brains, and are filled with green goo, the function of which Wilson never mentions.)
The remainder of the action is essentially a long on-the-run scene leading to a showdown at a massive sim production facility in the Atacama Desert. Wilson explains neither the radiosphere hive-mind’s need for massive number of sims, nor their purpose. This in turn leads to a very unsatisfying conclusion.
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Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.