A Sweet Theorem of a Book
By John CluteDecember 22, 2013
Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson
The only word missing here (this is a rhetorical turn I've employed before, and will again) is of course still.
The deboned whited Buffalo that still remains is no longer a place to visit, even for Torontonians, because America no longer exists (the snow shovels are plastic and from China), so when Wilson starts off Burning Paradise in an intact-seeming Buffalo we suspect (as many American readers of a certain age will suspect) that we have entered an alternate world, and so it proves. And if we are wise we will suspect that Wilson has not done this by accident: we will suspect that he wants us immediately to perceive that there is something very right and also very wrong about the history we are entering. What feels right is the chance to imagine ourselves inhabiting a world where a small North American city might not remind us of all that has been lost, of all that has been vacated of all density of being. The young protagonist of Burning Paradise, who is dislodged from any security within a few pages, and who will ultimately share in the destruction of this world, knows she has been lucky:
All those little towns out there in the dark, she thought, and all those cities, too, all the people behind their yellow windows taking for granted the sanity and predictability of things in general. . . . Cassie remembered too well the time when her own life had been like that, when she had been unambiguously proud to stand up on Armistice Day and salute the flags of the United States and the League of Nations and everything they seemed to represent: the century of peace, the inexorable advance of freedom and prosperity.
What feels right, then, is a twentieth century in which the League of Nations still exists, and there has been peace among the nations, and Christmas snow still falls within the dome of a populated Buffalo.
What feels wrong, of course, is any sense that this Buffalo, this world at peace, is costless. Cassie and her family are survivors of a purge several years ago, in which almost all members of what was known as the Correspondence Society have been eliminated, apparently by the government. We soon learn that the Society has correctly deduced that the human race has been for some time under the sway of a vast hivemind, a "hypercolony" of units who had aeons ago created and who inhabit an invisible field that enfolds Earth, as within a snow dome. A meat puppet species, such as Homo sapiens, will evolve for thousands of years without encountering this layer; what might be deemed a loose Jonbar Point may be defined as the point when, around the beginning of the twentieth century, technological progress leads to the discovery of the "radio-propagative layer" that houses the unknown and undetectable hypercolony. This all seems good to us, as the layer is immensely friendly to advances in electronic communication. But, as an element of the hypercolony in humanoid form tells an older member of Cassie's family in flashback:
"Once such a culture [as Homo sapiens] begins to generate electronic communications, the hypercolony intervenes to foster certain outcomes. Peace as opposed to war, for example. . . . The adopted species is freed from the consequences of its own [inevitable meat puppet] bellicosity, while prosperity becomes generalized. . . . Useful technologies then arise naturally and efficiently, and the hypercolony exploits these technologies."
"Exploits them for what purpose?"
"Reproducing itself," the monster said.
Which brings us back to Buffalo.
Cassie, who is still adolescent (Young Adult Alert), has gone to ground in Buffalo on parental instructions. When she discovers that blank-faced humanoid figures, cartoon exudates of the hypercolony that take on only as much humanity as needed for a particular task, have tracked her down, she goes on the run with her young companions (leaving the fake Buffalo that we in Toronto believed in, because we believed in the ontological density of America), and tries to go to ground in America. But she cannot, the hypercolony's information net is as pervasive (one must guess) as information itself: which is to say that it is sufficiently complex to manage the phenomenal world in order to keep it from simply fissiparating into infinities of worlds every nanonsecond; which is to say the monsters always know where she's running.
The story of Burning Paradise, more rousing than Wilson sometimes allows himself, follows the cast from narrow escape to narrow escape, gradually southwards. A guru or two is enlisted. We learn more about the hypercolony, and a parasite that has invaded it, just as (in a sense) it has invaded us. It all ends neatly and, in a sense, calamitously: because once the belljar history we have been dancing to loses the proactive monitor that has kept us from destroying ourselves -- once the hypercolony, after it has spasmed new seed into the galaxy and the radio-propagative layer that was its home dissolves and it dies as do most insects after reproducing – Homo sapiens is of course left again to its own dreadful devices, and Paradise burns. By the final pages of the book there is every sign that we have already begun again our disastrous dance across the planet.
This may be the main lesson of the novel, a lesson we've heard before, though not I think with the such calm devastatingly sotto voce clarity: that we were not designed to survive our evolutionary success. That, having escaped our niche, we have nothing but ourselves to eat.
But there is another thread of thought and consequence in this sweet theorem of a book. It is made very clear from very early on that Wilson does not intend us to assume that the hypercolony, comprised of trillions of units, bears any resemblance whatsoever to the anthopocentric superminds so common in early sf when hiveminds were invoked, or in more recent sf when computers magically gain consciousness and become AIs. The hypercolony is not a conscious entity at all. The seeming consciousness of its avatars simply represents an active extrapolation into the meat world of trillions of elementary calculations as bundled through a near infinity of adaptive reiterations into a perfectly adequate imitation of conscious behavior.
Soon enough, it strikes one, what we now call 3D Printers will have become Von Neumann Machines with sensors capable of modifying their output as the external world demands, and capable of reproducing macro goons and meat puppet size avatars and sub-microbial entities by the trillion in order better to fulfill the mission they were built to undertake: to conquer space. Such an ensemble, such an incalculably complex Memory Palace of adaptive imitation, might be called a hypercolony. Burning Paradise is not about that outcome, not exactly.
It does, however, anticipate the universe that will not need flesh.
John Clute is the author of six volumes of reviews and criticism, most recently Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Beccon Publications, 2011). He coedited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; 2nd ed. 1993) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), both of which won Hugo Awards for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year. With David Langford he is currently working on the ongoing third edition of the SF Encyclopedia, online through Orion/Gollancz from October 2011; it won a 2012 Hugo; further information about this project can be found here.
LARB Staff Recommendations
THE FUTURE IS a foreign country. Not only do they do things differently, the things they do are often incomprehensible, wildly exciting or profoundly horrifying. And the locals won’t stop to translate for you. The only effective way to cope ...
UNLIKE OTHER FUNDAMENTAL elements of our lives — food, sex, and death, or even gravity — money has mostly escaped speculative examination in science fiction. Relatively few alternatives to money as a system of exchange have been proposed. Generally, it’s assumed that ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.