Review Date: 21 September 2003
Blind Lake, by Robert Charles Wilson
Tor, New York, NY, May 2003, 398 pages, Hardcover, US$24.95, ISBN:0-765-30262-4
a review by Rich Horton
Robert Charles Wilson has slowly and rather quietly produced a truly impressive body of work. His first story was "Equinocturne", as by Bob Chuck Wilson, for Analog in 1975 -- a story I must have read but which I do not remember. (I wonder if Wilson likes it that way.) He was 22 then -- no further stories appeared until 1985. His first novel, The Hidden Place, came out in 1986. He has been reviewed admiringly from the first, but his extremely quiet style and his usually subdued subject matter have kept him from widespread notice. Still, he has won awards -- a couple of Auroras, a Philip K. Dick Award for Mysterium (1994) and a John W. Campbell for The Chronoliths (2001). His short fiction has gathered respectful attention as well. Much of it is collected in The Perseids and Other Stories. It is my impression that from the publication of Darwinia in 1998 he transitioned from an interesting minor SF novelist to a major SF novelist, whose every work demands attention.
Blind Lake is a curious piece of work, and quite characteristic of Wilson. What he does here, as he has done in many of his novels, is to write a story that is at one level a nearly mainstream character study, a rather domestic look at a man and a woman and a child. But at another level, it is a truly wild piece of science fiction, depending on some very exotic SFnal ideas. There is something about the telling of a Wilson story that makes his central ideas, which tend to be really pretty weird, seem almost unassuming and mundane. So it is with Darwinia, so too I think with The Chronoliths. (Bios is not characteristic of Wilson's recent work -- it reads much more like out and out traditional SF.) His three most recent novels save Bios -- that is, Darwinia, The Chronoliths, and Blind Lake -- also share a similar central personal story. In each, the lead male character, somewhat battered by life, strikes up a sort of second-chance relationship with a similarly battered woman.
In Blind Lake there are three central characters. Chris Carmody is a thirtyish journalist who feels a lot of guilt over the apparent suicide of the subject of his first book, and some more guilt over the death of his younger sister. Marguerite Hauser is a scientist dealing with her recent bitter divorce from Ray Scutter. And Tess is Marguerite and Ray's daughter, who has troubles of her own, some stemming from a sort of "imaginary friend" she only can see, called Mirror Girl.
Chris Carmody has just come to Blind Lake, a Minnesota-based federal laboratory in which by mysterious means an array of "O/BEC" processors -- quantum neural nets based on Bose-Einstein Condensates -- image a planet of Ursae Majoris 47 (if I'm not mistaken the same system featured in Allen Steele's Coyote). Chris and his two colleagues, Elaine Coster and Sebastian Vogel, have been hired by a magazine to do a feature or features on the scientific work at Blind Lake. Marguerite Hauser is one of the scientists studying the images -- particularly focussing on one member of the intelligent alien race that lives there, who they call "Subject". Ray Scutter is an administrator at the lab. Just as the journalists arrive, the laboratory is suddenly closed off from all contact with the outer world. Apparently they are under quarantine -- possibly due to fear of some alien computer virus or equivalent being "downloaded" from the imaging process.
The storyline follows events during the period of the quarantine, which takes several months. Scientifically, the main crisis is Subject's sudden decision to leave his home "city" and begin a solitary journey. There are disputes among those who want to turn off the O/BEC's altogether, thus ending (they hope) any possibility of contamination; those who want to explore other things besides "Subject"; and those who want to keep following him. The other storyline mainly follows the tensions between Marguerite and Ray, as Ray plays various tricks aimed at gaining full custody of Tess. Tess's continued problems at school, and her encounters with Mirror Girl, play into Ray's hand. When Chris is assigned to move in with Marguerite and Tess (there being no room to house all the journalists and temporary workers trapped by the quarantine), he starts to forge a relationship with both Marguerite and Tess. And tiny hints seep in that something very strange indeed has happened at the other laboratory that uses O/BEC's to image a different planet.
The crisis involves answers to the various mysteries Wilson has posed regarding the nature and motives of Subject, and the nature of Mirror Girl, and the way in which the O/BEC's work, and why the quarantine was imposed. Wilson's answers are fairly interesting in their way, and the book is absorbing, the characters involving, and the ideas intriguing.
But ... well, it didn't quite work for me. Some of my problems were with the SFnal ideas. As I said, they are intriguing, and the book does not cheat us of answers. Even so, they are terribly unconvincing, and as presented are essentially magic. I just couldn't believe in them. Other problems were with the personal story. Yes, I liked Marguerite and Chris and Tess, and I rooted for them. But I still felt manipulated. Ray was simply too cartoonishly bad (even when we are given, late in the book, a sad reason for his feelings). Much of the action seemed convenient -- like Chris being assigned space in Marguerite and Tess's house. Would a single man really be housed with a single mother and her 11 year old daughter? That just seemed an auctorial move, to arrange for the central love affair.
An example of what I thought excessive manipulation occurs early in the book. The quarantine has been in place for a few days, and some people are getting desperate. They have business outside the lab that won't wait. One couple makes a run for it and are killed by drones outside the fence. The purpose, clearly, is to show that this quarantine is serious business. Fine -- but Wilson tells a little ministory about his escaping couple. We've never met them before, but we see the attempt from the POV of the man, a slimy contractor working building housing at Blind Lake. He needs to leave in order to arrange for an abortion for a 19 year old girl he's been fooling around with. We are carefully shown his vulgarity, his loveless relationship with his wife, her vulgarity -- then they are killed. It all seems designed to tell us "They were no great loss". Why?
So, in the end I have to rank this below Wilson's best work. (My favorites are Darwinia, which I know many people hate for its mid-book U-turn, and The Chronoliths.) It's definitely worth reading, and its clearly the work of a first rate writer. But it doesn't quite come together as a first rate novel.