Posts Tagged ‘Robert Charles Wilson’


Robert Charles Wilson

FASHION, n. Conformity in gaudier paint. Synonym: Tattoos. (Definition of fashion by “Linneth” in Robert Charles Wilson’s fine science fiction novel, Mysterium)


Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson cover(Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson. TOR, 2016, 351 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Prolific Canadian sci-fi author Robert Charles Wilson’s most recent novel, The Affinities (2016), was a thought-provoking, enjoyable read, as have been most of his previous books; he has, however, produced a few duds, such as Burning Paradise (2013), the novel preceding The Affinities. So, I was looking forward to this new book, hoping for the best but wondering where it would fall on the spectrum.

Last Year has its points. One is its premise, which is that sometime in the near future physicists will have discovered a way to access parallel time streams, and that a billionaire (August Kemp) has taken advantage of that discovery to open a type of Disneyland in 1873 Illinois. He uses that amusement park, Futurity City, to attract at top dollar the rich of the period to see the “wonders of the future,” and the 21st-century rich to indulge in a nostalgic (not so) “cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”

The protagonist is Jesse Cullum, a “local” working on Futurity City’s security detail, who comes to Kemp’s notice after foiling an assassination attempt on President Ulysses S. Grant. Cullum subsequently undertakes a number of special assignments with a partner from the 21st century, Elizabeth DePaul.

Wilson interweaves their adventures in the 1870s with Cullum’s back story as the son of a drunken whorehouse bouncer in San Francisco; following a violent altercation with the novel’s villain, mob boss Roscoe Candy, Cullum fled the city abandoning his injured sister to his aunt’s care.

To add tension to the tale–what is going to happen to all of these characters?–Wilson utilizes a “time lock” device: the portal to the future, “the mirror,” will close in 1877 to avoid excessive disruption to the time line in which it opened. With the time lock always lurking in the background, the tale unfolds, with the tension ramping up as the deadline approaches.

One of the virtues of Last Year is that Wilson uses the story to demystify both “Golden Age” America (racist, misogynistic, ignorant) and present-day America (somewhat less racist, misogynistic, and ignorant), and also to show that even the most apparently benevolent rich people can be (and almost inevitably are) warped by their wealth and power.

On the negative side, one minor problem is that while a fair portion of the book is set in San Francisco, Wilson is apparently unfamiliar with the place. For instance, he references people sweltering in their bedrooms during the summer. This is simply wrong. A typical summer day in San Francisco is overcast and foggy with a high of 55 and a low of 54; the warmest part of the year is in September and October, when the temperature will sometimes rise into the 80s, but usually doesn’t.

As well, the geography is slightly off. As an example, part of the action is set in a hotel on the block between Mission and Market on Montgomery Street. Wilson sets the walk to the Market Street wharf at 30 to 45 minutes from there. During my decade in San Francisco, I worked for a short time in a building half a block from the hypothetical hotel in Last Year; the walk from there to the wharf is a brisk 10 minutes, 15 if you take your time.

But these are minor matters. Anyone not familiar with San Francisco wouldn’t notice them.

A more major problem is that it’s too easy to figure out how the plot will resolve, as there are very few possible ways it could go. Halfway through Last Year, I thought I had it figured out, and I did. The details were all that were in question. Almost any reader who’s paying close attention would probably also figure out the plot.

Last Year is a mixed bag. The writing is, as usual from Wilson, skillful. The characters are interesting and (mostly) sympathetic. The action scenes are well described. And Wilson’s social commentary is spot on. It’s difficult, however, to get beyond the too obvious plot resolution.

If you’d want to read any of Wilson’s recent novels, I’d recommend The Affinities, not Last Year.

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(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. And an unrelated sci-fi novel.)

Free Radicals front cover


Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson(The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson. Tom Doherty Associates, 2015, 300 pp., $25.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Over the last decade, matching algorithms have become part of everyday life, or at least online life, with their being used in everything from ads matched to browsing histories to online dating. Robert Charles Wilson has projected this trend into the near future with The Affinities. 

The premise is that matching algorithms have continued to be ever more refined, and that aided by neuroscience they’ve reached the point where they can match people with similar outlooks and personality traits, people who would inherently get along, have a natural affinity for each other. Beyond that, the testing and matching have been marketed on a mass basis by a computer science company that then places people–bar the 40% who don’t fit into any category–into one of 22 formal and close knit affinity groups which function as near-ideal families: places where members are unconditionally accepted and where they intuitively understand each other, and where they cooperate best with their like-minded peers.

The novel follows a young man from a far from ideal family, Adam Fisk, as he gradually becomes more and more immersed, over 20 years, in his affinity group. The characterization of Fisk and many of the secondary characters, notably members of Fisk’s biological family, is convincing, more so than the characterizations of the members of Fisk’s affinity group. The reason for this is likely that it’s difficult to make secondary characters interesting when they’re almost exactly aligned with the primary character; flaws and disagreements make for interesting characters; near-exact alignment doesn’t.

But the main interest in The Affinities lies in the development of the groups themselves, in particular Fisk’s group, Tau, the loosest, largest, least authoritarian of the groups. (The different groups all take their names from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.) At the beginning, seen through Fisk’s bedazzled eyes, Tau looks like paradise. As the years go by, however, a darker side of the group gradually emerges.

Like members of all in groups, the members of Tau begin to see themselves as better than outsiders, and express that arrogant belief through, among other things, using depreciative terms for outsiders, and discouragement of members from having close relationships with outsiders, even with their biological families. Effectively, they dehumanize outsiders.

It also turns out that cooperation and close coordination aren’t always good things in the affinity groups, particularly in the most hierarchical and authoritarian of them, Het. Shortly into the narrative, tensions begin to arise between the various affinity groups, tensions which eventually lead to open hostilities with both the other groups and various governments.

The central character, Adam Fisk, plays a leading role in the inter-group hostilities, and the increasingly sordid tactics employed by both Fisk’s group, Tau, and their primary opponent, Het, lead Fisk to a crisis of conscience, which in turn leads to an unexpected (though foreshadowed) denouement.

Well plotted, with convincing characters and considerable insight into group dynamics and psychology, The Affinities is a thought provoking, enjoyable read.

Recommended.

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(Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover


MOST SCIENCE FICTION IS IRRELIGIOUS — in most sci-fi stories, religion is simply not there. Some sci-fi novels, however, are implicitly or explicitly atheist: some have atheist characters, some revolve around the conflicts of atheists with religious believers and religious institutions, and — to make the definition even looser — some that I’d classify as atheist (more accurately, atheist related) simply critique religion and religious institutions.

The following books do not comprise anything approaching a complete list, even using that loose definition of atheist science fiction. They’re merely the best atheist and atheist-related sci-fi novels that I’ve come across.

I’m sure there are many other good atheist science fiction novels, and I’ll add them to the list as I discover them. If you have any favorites not listed here, please leave a comment about them. (All links in the listings below go to book reviews on this site.)

cover photo and quotation from Mick Farren'ts "Protectorate"

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Margaret Atwood

  • The Handmaid’s Tale. (1985) More speculative social fiction than science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s horrifying vision of what would happen to America, and especially American women, if fundamentalists seized power. Anti-fundamentalist and antiauthoritarian, but not specifically atheist.

Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy is also well worth a read.

  • Oryx and Crake (2003) bears not at all on religion, but rather on rapacious corporate capitalism and the evil uses to which it could put technological developments in the pursuit of profit.
  • The Year of the Flood (2009) is set inside a believable, intricately described religious/ecological cult, and continues describing the socio-politico-economic problems carried over from Oryx and Crake.
  • Maddaddam (2013) has still more on the matters dealt with in the first two books, but also looks at the extreme measures necessary to avoiding detection in an all-pervasive surveillance state. It also features biting and insightful passages regarding the sleaziness and hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion. All three books in the trilogy are masterfully written and quite entertaining.

Iain M. Banks

The following are Banks’ “Culture” novels–space opera on a grand scale. While set in the same universe, all work as stand-alone novels. All are set in a galaxy-spanning, far-future atheist and anarchist society, where religion pops up only when there’s an “outbreak” of it somewhere. All of the Culture novels feature strong, believable characters (including AIs), complicated ethical dilemmas, and frequent dark humor. Of them, the two best are probably Player of Games and Surface Detail, and the weakest is probably The Hydrogen Sonata. The one that has the most to do with religion, revolving around the sheer viciousness of many religious believers, is Surface Detail; religious fanaticism and the ills it produces also features prominently in Consider Phlebas.

  • Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • The Player of Games (1988)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Excession (1996)
  • Inversions (1998)
  • Look to Windward (2000)
  • Matter (2008)
  • Surface Detail (2010)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up, by G. Richard Bozarth

G. Richard Bozarth

  • Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up (2014). A very funny, very revealing retelling of well known stories from one of the original, though unevenly written and poorly plotted, fantasy novels. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

John Brunner

  • The Crucible of Time (1983). An inspiring novel about the rise of science and its eventual triumph over religion in an alien society.

Mick Farren

  • cover of "The Armageddon Crazy" by Mick FarrenProtectorate (1985). Deals with cults in the context of authoritarian government. Not one of Farren’s better novels, but worth reading if you can find a copy for a buck or two.
  • Their Master’s War (1987). An entertaining page-turner concerning militarism, imperialism, and religious manipulation.
  • The Armageddon Crazy (1989). An all too timely and at times quite funny novel about a fundamentalist takeover of the U.S. government. Probably Farren’s best sci-fi novel.

Tom Flynn

  • Galactic Rapture (2000). Deals almost entirely with the harmful effects of religious belief, irrationality, and gullibility. The high points are the detailed descriptions of “psychic” scams.

James P. Hogan

  • Code of the Lifemaker coverCode of the Lifemaker (1983). Very entertaining, very funny. A sharp look at a questioning attitude and rationality vs. credulousness and irrationality, with some sections exposing how “psychics” gull their victims. Probably the best sci-fi novel ever written about the conflict between science and religion, and definitely the funniest.
  • The Immortality Option (1995). The sequel to Code of the Lifemaker. Well worth reading, but only after reading Code of the Lifemaker. It’s almost as funny as its predecessor.

Victor Koman

  • The Jehovah Contract (1987). A noir-comic — to use the current term, “urban fantasy” — novel about the conflict between good and evil, where good is personified as a hit man who has a contract to take out evil, personified as The Almighty.

Ken Macleod

  • The Night Sessions (2008). A perceptive near-future look at the menace of religious fundamentalism.
  • Intrusion (2012). A frighteningly plausible dystopian novel of an all-pervasive surveillance state. A modern 1984. The protagonists are both atheists, and the novel in part revolves around their conflicts with religious “nutters” and religious privilege.

James MorrowBlameless in Abaddon by James Morrow

  • Blameless in Abaddon (1996). This is more fantasy than science fiction, but it’s worth including nonetheless. The second book in Morrow´s Godhead trilogy, Blameless in Abaddon revolves around the unstinting efforts of a terminally ill cancer patient to put God on trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. It’s very dark, but very funny.

I’ve read the other two books in the trilogy, Towing Jehovah (1994) and The Eternal Footman (1999) and would not recommend them; fortunately, Blameless in Abaddon works as a stand-alone novel.

Morrow has written a number of other atheistic novels and story collections, such as Only Begotten Daughter (1990) and Bible Stories for Adults (1996); I wouldn’t recommend them for the same reason I wouldn’t recommend Towing Jehovah or Eternal Footman: they’re satires, but I didn’t find them funny. The one other book of Morrow’s I would recommend is the philosophically oriented City of Truth (1990), the first portion of which is downright hilarious.

Douglas Preston

  • Blasphemy (2007). A cross between a near-future high-tech thriller and a Tony Hillerman mystery, Blasphemy features two strong, very well described fundamentalist-preacher characters, one a sleazy, wealthy televangelist (drawing on Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Robert Schuler), the other a dirt poor, ignorant, vicious fanatic. If you like both thrillers and the Hillerman novels (set on the Navajo Reservation), you’ll probably love this one.

Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Galileo’s Dream (2009). A well executed time-travel novel involving Galileo and his conflict with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition.

Norman Spinrad

  • Mind Game (1980). Science fiction related but not science fiction, this is sci-fi author Spinrad’s insightful treatment of a barely disguised Church of Scientology, and one of the best novels about cults ever written

Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex front cover

  • The Apocalypse Codex (2012). An oftentimes funny, genre-bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) novel about a prominent televangelist, Christian fundamentalism, slithering necromantic horrors, and “applied computational demonology.” Although part of the Laundry Files series, this works as a stand-alone novel, though you’ll enjoy it more if you first read the previous highly entertaining books in the series; the first is The Atrocity Archives (2004).
  • The Delirium Brief (2017). The primary characters from The Apocalypse Codex, and the related fundamentalist and necromantic monstrosities, reappear in this latest Laundry Files novel. There were two intervening novels in the series between these two, and it’d be a good idea to read The Apocalypse Codex before tackling The Delirium Brief; it’d be a better idea to read all of the prior Laundry Files books, as there are many references to events in the previous novels.

Gore Vidal

  • Kalki (1978). A terrifying look at religious fanaticism and the use of biological WMDs.
  • Live from Golgotha (1993). A  short comic time-travel novel about live TV coverage of the crucifixion of J.C.

Robert Charles Wilson

  • Re-Birth, by John Wyndham front coverMysterium (1994). A perceptive, well written novel about an alternate-reality American religious police state, and the casual arrogance, self-righteousness, callousness, intrusiveness, and brutality of those who run such religious states. Also deals with the evil of blindly following orders rather than following your own conscience.

John Wyndham

  • Re-Birth (1955). A nicely written early post-apocalyptic tale of religious ignorance, arrogance, and brutality, and escape from it.

 

 

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Zeke Teflon, compiler of this list, is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, which deals in large part with religious and political cults.

Free Radicals front cover


Burning Paradise cover
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.

Not recommended.

If you’ve never read any of Wilson’s novels, he’s written much better ones than this. Darwinia, Spin, and even Julian Comstock would provide a better introduction to his writing.

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Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover