Sep 27 2010 9:53am

Monuments from the future: Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths

Robert Charles Wilson has the best “what if” ideas of anybody writing today—well, maybe he’s equal first with Schroeder and Egan. When people complain about science fiction these days lacking originality, he’s one of the first people I mention as a counterexample. He thinks of wonderful “what if” questions and then tells stories about realistic characters living in the futures those questions lead them to. Sometimes he makes this work, and other times he asks a terrific question and gives it a less satisfying answer. (I’m looking at you, Darwinia.) He’s never less than really really interesting, and when he pulls it off he’s quite astoundingly good. The Chronoliths (2001) is one of my favourites. It was my very favourite until Spin overtook it.

The premise of The Chronoliths is that one day in 2021 a huge glassy monument commemorating a victory in 2041 comes crashing down in Thailand. Other monuments follow in other cities across Asia, many of them doing huge damage to life and property when they appear out of the future. They are made by a new kind of physics, and are definitely being sent back in time. Their monumental existence starts to shape the future they celebrate. Meanwhile people get caught up in their fields of weird probability, and their lives get even more distorted than the rest of history. This is the first person close-up story of Scott and his family and what happened in the twenty years between the first message from the future arriving and being sent.

Our first person narrator Scott is the typical modern everyman—he’s a divorced father with problems with his own parents. He’s divorced because he wasn’t there for his wife and child when the first chronolith touched down and his daughter had an ear infection. The story covers twenty years—the daughter grows up and has agency, representing the next generation, the generation shaped by the inevitablity of the coming victories. The heart of the book is about being there for your family as opposed to finding out what the heck is going on with the huge mysterious world-changing thing that’s happening—and Wilson does remarkably well with focusing on a dilemma that most SF doesn’t even spend time blinking at.

There are enough cool ideas here for anyone. The speculation about time and probability and the implications of the technology that’s sending the chronoliths back through time are fascinating. Then there’s the human level—the motivation for doing it. They say they celebrate the victory of a mysterious Kuin—and before very long there are a lot of people claiming to be Kuin, everywhere. Kuin doesn’t state positions, so Kuin stands for anything people want him to. Kuin’s victory is inevitable. Everybody’s responding to Kuin in some way, whether to welcome him or oppose him—but he isn’t here yet.

There’s also a mad scientist—she’s called Sulamith Chopra, a Tamil who immigrated to the U.S. when she was three. She’s gay, too. (She’s one of the good guys. But she is definitely a little mad.) There’s a whole planet, though the hero and his family are American and most of the actual book takes place in the U.S. But really I think Wilson gets points for starting in Thailand and having excursions to Jerusalem and Mexico—so many books set in the near future barely footnote the rest of the world. There’s a fanatic and a love interest and a whole set of complicated people in the kind of complicated shapes of relationships people get into. There’s a really good story—a really good human story and a really good science fiction story.

There’s a particularly odd issue with reading a book that’s ten years old and set ten years in the future—it seems simultaneously ahead and behind where it ought to be. There’s a comment in the very beginning about the wats of Thailand, and the character says you can see pictures of them in any encyclopaedia—and that seems so old fashioned! Google image search will show you pictures of them without getting out of your chair! Something weird seems to have happened to the internet, because it’s sort of there and sort of isn’t—there’s something more like satellite TV, and people print things out all the time and have printouts lying around. Maybe that’s what people did in 1999, which is probably when this was written? It feels weird, it feels retro, and I didn’t notice this when I first read it in 2002. There are also people going to airports and catching planes with only the most farcical levels of security—pre 9\11 U.S. norms, but how odd they seem! This doesn’t make the book less enjoyable, and it certainly isn’t the kind of problem Wilson could have done anything about, it’s just odd. Twenty years ahead is one of the most difficult times to write.

The Chronoliths is a character story that also gives us a lot to think about—exactly what science fiction ought to do.

I read this in one gulp, barely setting it down at all, and I think I remember doing the same the first time I read it. So you might want to clear some time in your schedule for this one.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Michael Green
1. greenazoth
Thanks for mentioning this; I've been meaning to read more Wilson ever since I got through Spin, but for some reason I never got around to it.

It's not often you find someone in SF who can give you a sense of people's real lives in amidst the weirdness. Seems like a good talent to have.

Oh, and these rereads are all exceptionally awesome (as opposed to humdrum normal awesomeness).

Thank you.
Daniel Roy
2. triseult
The Chronoliths is in my top 3 favorite SF novels, easy. I don't know a single SF writer that does the job so well of combining mind-boggling SF concepts with very human and credible storytelling. He manages to be both epic and intimate.

Thanks for bringing this great book to the attention of the Tor readership!

Spin is another fine book of Wilson's, almost as good as The Chronoliths. I prefer The Chronoliths, but mostly for irrational reasons.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Greenazoth: Definitely a great talent to have -- and it's surprising how unusual it is.
4. DontDriveAngry
I really enjoyed this book as well...and it's much more accessible than Darwinia for those new to Wilson.
Sean Arthur
5. wsean
Loved Spin. I'll have to check this out.
6. dmg
I recall my first notice of The Chronoliths, Jo: a glowing review in LOCUS. The reviewer (Russell Letson?) made the book sound so good, so special, that I purchased and read the book immediately. (Yep, straight to the top of the heap!) Spin, too.

But then I read the terrible Darwinia and Blind Lake, and I recalled my inchoate misgivings from back when Lou Aronica was Wilson's publisher and finally put two and two together: every other novel sucks. (Sure, only my opinion.) I could not care less in the 80s why that might be, but in the 2000s, I still am mystified why such a gifted writer as Wilson misses with such regularity.

Perhaps if I were to calculate whether it is his odd or even numbered books that suck, I would know (better) which books to read... and which to avoid. Until then, I have you, and your excellent insights. :-)

Thank you (again)!
7. AlecAustin
Hrm. I like the premise of many of Robert Charles Wilson's books, and then I feel that their execution lets me down. Weirdly, I liked Darwinia a lot more than The Chronoliths or Spin, though I think some of that might be the modern start points of the latter books, and my weakness for books about expeditions into the unknown. Was Darwinia's explanation of what was actually going on kind of weak? Sure. But I personally found the revelation of Kuin's identity immensely disappointing, and while Wilson got credit for having bits happen in Thailand and Jerusalem and Mexico, he lost almost all of it with me because of that particular choice.

I recently read Axis, in hopes that it would actually do something with all the ideas introduced in Spin, and again came away kind of disappointed. It's rarely that Wilson's speculative elements are bad, so much as that the personal relationships he writes around those elements are so relentlessly depressing, to the point of becoming kind of tedious. Oh, look, it's another divorced protagonist! (Small sample size. But still, I think every one of Wilson's books I've read has had that in common. It gets a little old.)
8. AlecAustin
Double post, sorry.
Meagan C
9. meagan
I really enjoyed the Chronoliths; it was my first of RCW's (and I actually didn't notice he has been in print since before I was born, I have a lot of ground to cover!) I liked Spin but have yet to seek out Axis and I have checked Darwinia out from the library 3 times and still have not made it past page 50. I think I read them too close together and they all seemed the same, Blind Lake, Spin, all blended into each other. Though, I think my problem with Julian Comstock was it is a very different book than I wanted it to be....
10. peachy
Darwinia was one of those books that I would have liked a lot better if the author had taken their cool premise and simply played it straight. (I felt the same way about The Man Who Was Thursday, for example.) I don't think I've read any other Wilson - is that kind of thing common with his books?
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Peachy: The particular thing in Darwinia, absolutely not. Doing something nobody else would have thought of with an idea, yes.
12. Rush-That-Speaks
This is definitely anecdata, but I certainly printed a lot more things out in 1999-- in fact, I still have some piles of printouts of about that vintage. Most places I interacted with computers had dial-up and took a significant amount of loading time to display image-heavy things, and there weren't things like the wayback machine and googlecache to help convince me that websites would still be there in six months. So I pretty much printed stuff out where now I would hit bookmark, or on a public computer mail a link to myself. These days it's faster to regoogle than to go find a piece of paper I previously printed, but that really changed around, oh, '03-'04, which is when I started finding public library computers with broadband.
13. NancyM
I love The Chronoliths and Spin, and have enjoyed at least parts of most of RCW's others. I think that perhaps endings are not his strong point, so I can enjoy a book while reading it but feel a bit let down after the end.
Michael Grosberg
14. Michael_GR
I think the Chronoliths is my favorite RCW novel, including Spin. But perhaps it's because it was the first book of his I read, and the later ones all tended to fall into a similar pattern: A huge world-changing event occurs, and a male protagonist has to rebuild his life and/or family. Still, I think it has the best resolution of all his novels.

When I read the Chronoliths, it was just after 9/11 and I could empathize with the characters becasue at the time, we all experienced a similar huge, world-changing event recently in our lives. It was as if Wilson anticipated the zeitgist somehow. That a tower-like structure was involved was even more of a coincidence.
Nancy Lebovitz
15. NancyLebovitz
I didn't have the usual problem with Darwinia, but it had been spoiled for me. I have no idea whether I would have been infuriated if I hadn't expected it to turn into a different novel in the middle.

On the other hand, I found myself sympathizing with the threat. Is is really a bad thing to have new life forms instead of endlessly replaying humanity?
Justin Adair
16. Hobbyns
Oh this was my introduction to Wilson, though like you, Spin quickly became my favorite. It was a real treat to go back and discover all of his earlier work after reading this.
Todd Johansen
17. Gher06
This is one of my favorite books, which isn't surprising, because RCW is one of my favorite authors.

I love Spin, and that was the first RCW book I read, but the concept in this just blew me away. A monument commemorating a military victory that hasn't happened yet. How do you fight that?

I'm always amazed that RCW doesn't get the recognition he deserves. It seems most people have never heard of him.
David Dyer-Bennet
18. dd-b
I find this book and Spin, and the Schroeder I've tried, to have "horror cooties". There's a looming presence, and they're playing on dread. And I hate horror. Also this in particular is time travel based, and I'm really doubtful that there's been any need for any more time travel stories since "All You Zombies".

Which is a good part of why I find modern SF in general so thin for me; most of the stuff other people think are the leading examples smell of horror to me. (Not Egan or Vinge, generally, which is good.)

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