Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson – review

16059400 A new RCW novel is always welcome, though his chances of matching his form on the likes of The Chronoliths and Spin are slight. So I approach his work with anticipation and trepidation, knowing I will enjoy the read, not want it to end, and yet still be slightly disappointed overall.

I’ve tried to avoid actual plot spoilers, but if like me you prefer to approach something totally cold, you should definitely avoid parts of this review. What I’ve tried to do below is indicate, using italics, aspects of the novel you might prefer to work out for yourself.

Burning Paradise is set in an alternate 2014, 100 years after the Great War ended in Armistice – not after dragging on for years – but in a few months. The 20th and 21st centuries have played out differently: more peaceful, it’s true, but also with a much slower pace of technological development. There are no digital communications, no smartphones, no satellites.

World communication still depends upon the ionosphere (also known as the Heavyside Layer), which reflects radio signals around the globe. For a small group of people, however, radio and other electronic communications are out of the question. This apparently eccentric group, known as the Correspondence Society, are aware that the ionosphere is not what it seems.

Rather than a natural phenomenon, the properties of the radiosphere are sinister and alien. It is a parasitical “hyper colony”, surrounding the earth and deliberately altering communications to create the conditions it needs to thrive. Imagine if in today’s satellite communications, a slight delay allowed for digital pictures and messages to be subtly altered, manipulating events and responses to prevent unwelcome outcomes.

 World peace,  other words. Or, in the case of our reality, capitalist hegemony. In this secret world lives Cassie, teenage daughter of a murdered scientist, whose world comes (further) unravelled when a road accident indicates that their cover is blown.

Whereas Tim Powers (in Declare) imbued the Heavyside Layer with supernatural properties, RCW’s take on it is closer to traditional science fiction tropes concerning pod people, free will, and the true nature of humanity. If not quite pod people, Wilson’s “sims” are like plausible psychopaths, who can act human while feeling absolutely nothing.

As with many RCW novels, we have protagonists with family issues, we have long road trips, and we have a technological sublime that surpasses human understanding. There’s nothing here that RCW hasn’t done before in other ways, which is not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable read with pleasurable sentences and a plot that grips at times. The focus here is not on the alt.historical backdrop, which is merely sketched (much is left for the reader to work out), but on the characters and their relations with each other. Not as meaty or thought-provoking as Spin or Blind Lake, this is still intelligent speculative fiction, packed with ideas and calculated surprises.

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