Tor, 2001, 320 pages
Scott Warden is a man haunted by the past - and soon to be haunted by the future. In early 21st-century Thailand, Scott is an expatriate slacker. Then, one day, he inadvertently witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar in the forested interior. Its arrival collapses trees for a quarter mile around its base, freezing ice out of the air and emitting a burst of ionizing radiation. It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiseled into it commemorates a military victory - 16 years in the future.
Shortly afterwards, another, larger pillar arrives in the center of Bangkok - obliterating the city and killing thousands. Over the next several years, human society is transformed by these mysterious arrivals from, seemingly, our own near future. Who is the warlord "Kuin" whose victories they note?
Scott wants only to rebuild his life. But some strange loop of causality keeps drawing him in, to the central mystery and a final battle with the future.
This isn't really a book about a warlord from the future who conquers the world. It's about a man trying to protect his family. You may or may not think that's a good thing.
When Tom Cruise was doing publicity tours for the Steven Spielberg War of the Worlds movie, he took that approach, telling audiences that it wasn't really about a Martian invasion, but a man trying to protect his family. So, people who wanted a tale of survival and family drama might have been more drawn to it than people who wanted to see big ol' tripods laying heat rays on New York City.
The Chronoliths is premised on a similar epic idea: a conqueror from the future, known only as "Kuin," begins sending massive monoliths depicting himself and commemorating his victories back in time, planting them all over the world, as if to say "I'm coming and there's nothing you can do about it." Some materialize in out-of-the-way places; the very first appears near a beach in Thailand, where the main character, Scott Warden, is there to witness it. But each "chronolith" generates massive thermal and shock waves when it appears, and the next chronolith appears in the middle of Bangkok, virtually destroying that city.
Over the next few years, more of them appear throughout Asia. Wilson discusses them and the world's reaction to them quite intelligently; as Warden himself says (he is the first-person narrator), it seems incredible in retrospect that people just took it in stride the way they did, especially in the West, but it's very human behavior. Faced with an existential threat against which there seems to be nothing you can do, people tend to put their heads in the sand and go about their lives. Everyone knows Kuin is going to start taking over Asia in about twenty years, but outside of Asia, people mostly believe that he'll be contained there and thus he can't be a threat to them.
Then the chronoliths begin appearing in Africa, and Europe, and even then, North Americans tell themselves that they are safe.
But this is all background, big events going on elsewhere in the world, as Scott Warden's life continues through a harsh economic downturn, accompanied by long-dreaded environmental catastrophes that have nothing to do with the chronoliths, that throws much of America into poverty and unemployment. Scott, because he happened to be present at the appearance of the first Chronolith, is initially of interest to the government, and later he is contacted by a scientist named Sue Chopra, who has the only viable theories to explain the chronoliths, as well as causality and time travel. She believes Kuin is inevitable — but he can also be stopped.
There are a whole bunch of things going on in this novel. There is some talk about time travel physics, of course, but it's mostly kept light and simple, which is not to say that it's not one of the more pseudo-scientifically plausible approaches I've read. Wilson seems to have a gift for condensing Big Idea SF physics into relatively simple form, and his writing is both clear and marvelously descriptive at times. The chronoliths themselves are awesome artifacts, indestructible, scary, depicting Kuin in various ways but always ambiguously, so despite everyone's efforts to figure out who he is, he remains an enigma until the very end. Kuin is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Scott Warden finds that all the people in his own life, from Sue Chopra to Hitch Paley, the drug dealer he knew in Thailand when the first chronolith arrived, to Adam, the psychopathic "Kuinist" his teenage daughter hooks up with during a very, very ill-considered rebellious phase, are inextricably linked to him, wrapped in circular loops of causality that Chopra says are due to the "Tao turbulence" generated by the chronoliths. Or put more simply, she says, "there are no coincidences."
Wilson describes a chilling yet perfectly, believably mundane America going down the shitter. Scott Warden, a highly educated programmer, is reduced to selling salvaged electronics at flea markets, and considers himself doing better than most. Much of the economy goes into building up a military to fight a war some say will never come. The old Civil War term "Copperhead" is revived to refer to the growing movement of (mostly upper-class) Americans who believe that rather than preparing to fight Kuin, they should negotiate "peace with honor." But more dangerous than the Copperheads are the Kuinists, who openly welcome Kuin's arrival, some with a pragmatic but cynical belief that things can't be any worse under the unifying rule of a powerful leader, others with a messianic religious fervor.
Unfortunately, Scott Warden's daughter falls into the company of one of the latter groups. They go on a "Haj" to Mexico to see the anticipated arrival of the first chronolith in North America, setting up events and encounters that will loop back on Scott and his daughter and everyone else he knows.
Because Kuin is kept offstage and the chronoliths themselves are just great big MacGuffins, this isn't a grand war story with time travel, and while there are some interesting ideas, there isn't really a big "gotcha!" twist at the end, as you might expect from a time travel story. There are possibilities hinted at all along the way, but it's left to the reader to infer much of their meaning. Mostly the story focuses on Scott and his family, and to a lesser extent, Sue Chopra, whose primary purpose is to infodump and motivate Scott's ongoing involvement with the chronoliths.
I'd recommend this one to any SF fan; it's also a pretty easy (but not dumb) read even for people who don't like SF much, as I think the combination of action and family drama would appeal even to people not inherently attracted to the idea of a time traveling warlord from the future.
Verdict: The Chronoliths was a fast-paced read and a nice example of intelligent science fiction that is nicely balanced between the human aspects and the spec-fic elements. This was my first book by Robert Wilson; he's definitely worth reading again.
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