The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

(discussed October 24, 2002)

On a ten-point scale (1=bad, 10=good), the people who read the book gave the following ratings: 5 (Judy), 6 (John), 7 (Alek), 7 (Kendra), 8 (Abe), 8 (Dru), 8 (Ignacio), 8 (Julie), 9 (Chris), 9 (Dedaimia), 9 (Kate), 9 (Peter), 9 (Raja), 9 (Steve)
Average: 7.9

Raja said he would summarize his own feelings about the book by saying that it was first-rate fiction, but a bit thin on the SF. That is, he felt it was quite well written--he found it very compelling and cared strongly about the characters--but it didn't really add anything to SF's body of ideas about time travel. (The book's SFnal idea, in his view, was something that Egan or Chiang could have done in a couple of paragraphs, or [say] Silverberg in 10-15 pages. When Peter compared it to Philip K. Dick, Raja quibbled that PKD had done something similar as a short story ["A Little Something for Us Tempanauts" as Peter identified it].)

Alek said the book had terrific images, and everyone seemed to agree: the Chronolith in Thailand, the arrival in Israel, the chaos in Portillo, the arrival in Wyoming.

Judy and John dissented from the (seeming) consensus that the book had terrific characterization. John said that the characters were ciphers. Judy found the viewpoint character's endless beating up on himself to be a cheap ploy for sympathy. Others gave examples of why they liked the characterization: For instance, Dedaimia liked the way that Ashlee took care of Scotty's daughter after Ashlee had just lost her own son, and that let Scotty to realize that he loved Ashlee. Raja liked the scene where Scotty and Ashlee have a picnic, and Ashlee tells Scotty that he doesn't have to butter her up to let him go on a dangerous mission; Scotty realizes that their lives have been so terrible that they can take something like this in stride.

An unusual moment occurred when John seemingly attacked the book on the basis of weak science! Raja (at least) thought that John was mocking the science geeks in the group, but John said he really did want an understanding of how Calabi-Yau spaces would have anything to do with time travel. The answer is that they probably don't. Raja would say to John now (he probably wasn't very coherent last night) that he doesn't expect good science in his SF; almost every author makes elementary blunders or changes things around for dramatic purposes. (Having said that, Raja liked the way that the author used Calabi-Yau spaces; they're a topic that's used in cutting edge science around multiple dimensions and Raja, at least, thought that evoking them lent some plausibility; perhaps a "real" time travel system (which Raja can't believe in ;-) would have something to do with them; if not fundamentally, perhaps as part of the support system.) (Disclaimer: This should not be construed as any sort of endorsement, nor any claim that Raja understands Calabi-Yau spaces any better than John does.)

Alek sent the following note as a follow-up:

two more points: i think that use of monoliths was a terrific idea to influence past and change present, from this point of view it looks like real "continuation" of 2001 space odyssey - impact of something inexplicable and unignorable on the society ...

IMHO much better use of time travel than sending machine guns or advanced technology (they are useless without support industry) or reading future issues of WSJ (either you have not enough resources to influence market or if you did there is good chance somebody will take care of you and your extra knowledge to return to status quo not mentioning that first successful manipulation will change all future market predictions ...)

send: (as follow-up on images) this book could be made into real nice movie especially if they kept original ending so there is nice time arc and moment of decision to keep past and future consistent by willingly going with forces of 'evil' ...

finally i do not remember who made this point (i think Steve) that it was nice to read book in which author did not try to explain everything as the story is told from personal perspective and simply people that live in times of change do not know all mechanisms of what is going on and even later historians may not agree what is the explanation (that reminds me this nice B5 episode ...)