Robert Charles Wilson is an author I’ve always enjoyed for the mysterious other-worldly feeling he brings to a story, and for his intense character-focused prose. So when Burning Paradise came out, it immediately jumped unto my reading list. I am happy to report that this novel measured up to expectations in both feeling and prose. It is an alternate reality story told from the point of view of several different characters. In this alternate reality the world has lived in a peaceful utopia since World War I, with none of the wars and conflicts that have happened in the real world. The problem is that this is no accident, human conflict has been suppressed by an alien entity resident in the upper atmosphere that manipulates communications on Earth to its own ends. Very few people know what is going on, the rest of the human race has no idea that they are being robbed of self-determination.
I really like what Wilson has done in creating this alien entity. The alien consists of microscopic organisms distributed in the atmosphere and communicating with each other to form a giant insect-like colony. In itself this isn’t a new concept, various types of such insect-like colonies have been done over and over again in fiction. Usually such colonies end up being innumerable drones ruled by a queen who is essentially human. Wilson takes a very different approach; his colony isn’t self-aware in the way a human is, but rather just a complex system capable of sophisticated actions to achieve the natural goals of living and reproducing, but without emotion or conscience like a self-aware being. This makes it more like a force of nature than a human antagonist. This is an alien that is truly alien, not just a human in disguise.
The one nit I would pick with this novel concerns the ending. I won’t throw any spoilers in here by giving details, I’ll just say that it had a bit of a deus ex machina feel to it. On the other hand, one thing that he did very well is show characters with very different reactions to how events evolved. Basically, some characters would have been happier if nobody messed with the alien entity, preferring the peaceful ignorance of living unaware under the alien’s control to the strife and uncertainty of self-determination. This attitude might sound crazy to a modern sensibility, but in real life I think this might represent the secret feelings of many people. I think it was gutsy of Wilson to go ahead and develop characters with these attitudes, despite the fact that it might rub many readers the wrong way.
Overall I wouldn’t rate this novel up with Wilson’s best, but it was definitely a good read. It’s just that some of his past work was so excellent that I have very high expectations when I see something new from him.