sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes)September 2002
2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Feature Review: The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Tor (Paperback): ISBN 0812545249 June 2002
Review by
Karen Burnham
pages List price $6.99  
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SFRevu Feature Interview with Robert Charles Wilson Feature Books: Chronoliths and A Hidden Place by Robert Charles Wilson

The Chronoliths is a novel that sucks you in from the beginning. There really aren't any slow parts to this novel. In contrast to your average SF book however, the most moving action is almost entirely based in the human drama, rather than in the SFnal aspects.

The story starts in Malaysia in the near future. Scott Warden, our protagonist, and his sort-of friend Hitch Paley, a local drug dealer, go to investigate the arrival of the first chronolith. It is a humongous monument, made of some unknown material, and wrecks the landscape where it lands. It bears a plaque commemorating the victory of Kuin in a battle about 20 years into the future.  

While they are investigating this momentous event, Scott's daughter Kaitlin has gotten a  nasty bacterial infection. His wife Janice has to cope with a seriously ill toddler in a foreign country by herself. Although she manages to get Kaitlin to an American hospital, the toddler is left almost completely deaf. Janice goes back home and promptly files for divorce. 

The rest of the book follows the repercussions of Scott's placement at that moment. As the beginning suggests, there are two major plotlines here, with Scott the link between them. In the chronolith plotline, an old physics professor contacts Scott. Sulamith Chopra (Sue) is fascinated by the fact that he was present when the first chronolith touched down. She says he has been caught in the "tau-turbulence" of the chronoliths. Her specialty is the physics of time, and she does not believe in coincidences. She finds him a job as an algorithm developer. He is thus at the center of the efforts to find the answers: Who is Kuin? Why are these specific places being chosen for monuments (most of them have no apparent tactical value)? What do they tell us about the nature of time? How are they produced and how can they be stopped? 

They manage to find ways to predict where the next ones will appear.  However, they have to work around the pro-Kuinist forces that feel that trying to interfere with the man who must be humanity's salvation is foolish. These groups pilgrimage to chronolith sites and use violence against those interfering with them. Sue, becoming more and more knowledgeable about how the monuments are made, becomes a focal point of  the conflict. Even Hitch Paley has a role in her organization, running interference against the Kuinist factions. The chronolith sites are first concentrated in Asia , then start working their way towards North America , adding a certain amount of suspense.

The other story, the one that actually keeps the pages turning, is that of Scott's personal drama. He does his best to be a good part-time father to Kaitlin. As she grows up, they are quite close. Then his involvement in the chronolith project takes him away from her for a while. Being a rebellious teenager, and encouraged by her stepfather, Kaitlin runs away from home to join a pro-Kuinist pilgrimage to Mexico . Scott drops everything to help find her. He meets Ashley, the mother of another run-away teen in the same group. With her and Hitch Paley they track the group down to Mexico where the next chronolith is due to appear. They recover Kaitlin, a little worse for wear, but Ashley's son Adam refuses to leave. Meanwhile Scott and Ashley establish a new life together despite the pain of past failures. They manage to live a somewhat normal existence as the world seems determined to tear itself apart around them.

Wilson 's real strength here is in his characters. The story focuses on only a handful, but they are all sympathetic and well drawn. Sue, the physics professor, starts as the stereotypical absent-minded professor but becomes much more complex. Similarly, Hitch starts as a small time drug dealer; then you learn about his background. Scott's own family history colors his relationships with all the people around him. That sort of in-depth characterization draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning to find out what happens to them. Even the rather sparely sketched stepfather has convincing enough motivations to make you curious about his ultimate fate.

Another strong point is the pacing. Although the book covers roughly 50 years of Scott's life, it does not get bogged down in trivial detail. If seven years pass without any major event from Scott's point of view, the chapter begins, "Seven years later..." If we're lucky, this will start a new trend for slimmer novels.  

The science of this story is its weakest point. The chronoliths themselves are the backdrop against which Scott's story unfolds. In them Wilson has an interesting idea, but it does not seem to be based on any current science. Of the "important questions" that the physics group is investigating, only one is definitively answered. At the end one is left with some paradoxes which are only vaguely resolved. In contrast, the human drama ends with no loose threads.

This is the opposite of the science fiction that I usually enjoy. I generally prefer to focus on the science instead of the characters. Wilson however, has created a great cast and an interesting future. I would recommend this to people coming to sci-fi from mainstream fiction, to people who enjoy excellent character driven dramas, or to anyone who enjoys a fast-paced read.

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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