Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Sort of Review

Eons ago I read a story by someone named Robert Charles Wilson in an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I remember at the time being struck by not only the beauty of the story but the lyrical writing that did it justice. Immediately I searched for any books he may have written and sure enough, his first novel had just been published. It was called A Hidden Place and was as beautifully written as the magazine story had been, but, if memory can serve after so many years, the book itself didn't quite live up to what I was hoping for.

I hesitate to say that because labeling a book "good" or even "very good" instead of "great" or "stupendous" shouldn't taint the novel or make it seem deficient or lacking in necessarily substantive ways. I think the real problem is that Wilson writes so well that your expectations float to the stratosphere and sheer anticipation leads to dangerously lofty expectations. The two don't always meet, at least not in as high a place as you might like.

So I'm not sure what to say about the guy. He's been around for a long time, often I think out of print, but he's won an armful of awards, including the 2006 Hugo. How can a guy like this be under the radar screen? He's the only contemporary science fiction writer whose work I keep up with. As I've written before, I'm one of many who left SF behind as we grew older, turning to more "grown up" forms of literature.

Again, I'm not sure how to describe that concept. SF lost me when it seemed like all of the new books were Star Wars variations, with civilization fighting civilization and race fighting race; I get enough of that in the city news. General fiction, and crime and mysteries, seemed less, what? Silly? Contrived? Formulaic?

I know that reads as a slam against SF and really, I have no problem with Star Wars. But the lexical dexterity of Jack Vance, the emotional beauty of Theodore Sturgeon, these things cannot be replaced by ray guns and jet fighters ins space. I miss the hard science of Larry Niven, before he dipped his typewriter in fantasy and wrote about magic. Sigh.

Maybe it's me. Probably it's me. But Robert Charles Wilson brings it all back to me. This morning I tried to put down Blind Lake after breakfast but I couldn't do it. The Sturgeon-like work he did with his characters came together with a Niven-esque scientific scenario to keep me reading when I should have turned productive for the day. Damn, the man can write, genre be damned.

Wilson's books often have wildly interesting premises: a series of monolithic structures appear overnight commemorating the future conquest of the land; a section of Europe is suddenly overwritten with what appears to be an alien landscape, complete with its own eco-system; in Blind Lake, quantum machines designed to find intelligent signals from the noise of space teach themselves to find and follow signals from other civilizations though no one understands how they work. Especially when the telescopes stop working yet the machines continue to render the signals.

This book, I think, comes closest to marrying his prose with his depth of characterization with a fascinating scientific premise. It, too, was nominated for a Hugo, which is publicity that can only help him attract new readers. He deserves it.


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