Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review: Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

A lot of times, we read science fiction for the escapism aspect or the cool futurist ideas, or even just as a reflection on current society. It's a much more simple exchange for me, where I enjoy science fiction more for the ideas and worldbuilding than I do for a specific message. When a book that has something to say comes along while also filling in a lot of those gaps for me, all the better. Robert Charles Wilson is probably best known for his modern sci-fi classic Spin, but I became a big fan following his alternate history/science fiction end-of-oil society mashup Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America from a few years ago. Seeing that Burning Paradise was coming soon, I looked forward to reading it. The book spends a lot of time on communications, but it actually feels more analogous to what we know so far about the upcoming Almost Human television show.

In the world of Burning Paradise, pretty much all the negative stuff that happened in the twentieth century of the United States didn't happen. No World Wars, society is in great shape, and so on. The problem is that the situation is entirely manufactured, as there is some sort of life form in the atmosphere that has been impacting our relationships on earth with subtle changes to our memories, our actions, and our future. When this was discovered, most of those who discovered it were killed, and the rest scattered into hiding. Unfortunately for them, this life form is now on earth in humanoid sim form, and they're out to make sure the secret stays intact.

I couldn't stop thinking about Almost Human while reading it, only because the themes of distrust of simulated android-type beings was kind of jolted into me from the constant commercials for the show. It's not the fairest comparison, though, because the story Wilson tells is one more of worldwide conspiracy and trust than a science fiction police procedural. The book is imperfect, but it works in that regard - it's an interesting, albeit unoriginal, concept told in a very engaging way. It puts all its cool ideas up front and mixes them in well with a plot that's surprisingly action-oriented.

I think my issues with the book, overall, come more from the expectation Wilson brings to his work than anything else. This wouldn't feel so pedestrian coming from an unknown, and while the book is very good, I've come to expect bigger and broader ideas at this point. If anything, this might be a good alternative entry point for Wilson's works than Spin, especially for readers who may be adverse to harder science fiction. Without a super-high concept or significantly unrealistic settings, it's a nice tweak to an existing formula.

Overall, definitely recommended. Will rightfully be heralded as one of the better science fiction books of 2013, and a fine addition to Wilson's body of work so far.

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