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Blind Lake, Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, 2003, 399 pp.
Robert Charles Wilson has never written a sequel, never mind a trilogy or overgrown fantasy series. His works are sui generis; even the linked-by-setting stories in his collection The Perseids and Other Stories are a diverse group of tales. Blind Lake continues that grand tradition of uniqueness. While the book resembles Wilsonís Mysterium in small ways (more on that later), itís also an unusual and surprising mix of elements. The writing is smooth, literate, and readable, itself an unusual combination, while Wilson also throws in that apparent contradiction in terms: a character study that has hard sf underpinnings. As might be expected from this description, thereís a lot to talk about in this book!
Blind Lakeís basic story follows a handful of characters in an isolated situation. Blind Lake itself is a research station in northern Minnesota, fairly remote, and one of the first things that happens in the story is that the entire installation gets cut off from the outside world. This broad structure would be the parallel to Wilsonís Mysterium; in that book, an entire town named Two Rivers was thrown into an alternate world. The inhabitants of Two Rivers have to fall back on their own resources, much as happens in Blind Lake; here, though, the people of Blind Lake are completely isolated, while Two Rivers was at least in contact with the outside world, however repressive and strange that world may have been.
No one in Blind Lake is quite sure why they are being quarantined, due to the complete severing of all forms of communication. The scientists soon begin to question the situation. Was it something that they had done? New Astronomy at first glance seems harmless; they are simply using some quantum devices to observe a planet light years away. No weapons, no genetic engineering, nothing of the overtly military sort. At the end of the first section of the book, an automated delivery truck has brought supplies and someone uses the chance to burst through the gates. That personís gory death by military drone underlines the fact with desperate finality: Blind Lake is dangerous.
Wilson has skilfully enhanced our interest in the scientific side of the story by attaching such levels of peril to the scientific activity in the installation. Best of all, we learn about the background of the situation through development of a handful of key characters. Marguerite Hauser is relatively new in town and she and her daughter Tessa have had some trouble adjusting. Marguerite is the head of Observation and Interpretation, but her vengeful ex-husband Ray became a supervisor on the project before she arrived (but after her position was announced) and relations have not been going well between the two. Tessa is one of the points of conflict between Marguerite and Ray; Tessa herself is one of the three or four major viewpoint characters. She had some psychological difficulties while at her last school, mainly due to Mirror Girl, the disturbing version of herself that she sees in mirrored surfaces. She is trying hard to adjust to Blind Lake and trying to stop Mirror Girl from pestering her. The other main character is Chris Carmody, one of a team of three journalists who arrive in Blind Lake just before the lockdown. He has his own troubled past; in his one and only book, his revelations about a respected scientistís corruption was followed by that manís suicide. Chris gets billeted at Margueriteís house; soon, he befriends Tessa and starts intervening in Marguerite/Ray conflicts.
The characters in Blind Lake feel incredibly real, even the villainous Ray. All are relatively smart people, but the stress of the lockdown begins to wear them down, a process that is also realistically portrayed. Wilson is generous with diversity of background for his characters; some hard sf novels feel pinched in outlook, or at least in breadth of type of character. In Blind Lake, not everyone toes the line of big science and big progress, and itís anyoneís bet as to which points of view will be most helpful scientifically or personally. Blind Lake is a community of people, not all of them scientists. Chris himself is a perfect example, a journalist with the reputation of a pariah. I liked how the oldest of the three journalists, Elaine, becomes an inadvertent mentor to Chris over the course of the book; she respects his writing, despite all the bad press. The third journalist is another person that I found interesting: Sebastian once wrote a book called God & the Quantum Vacuum, a kind of pseudo-mystical explanation of science that has made the scientists at Blind Lake quite wary of Sebastian. Sue, a minor character who falls for Sebastian, describes her version of the intent of Sebastianís book:
The relationship between Sue and Sebastian at first seems to be of small significance, but itís an important indicator of how the lives of people in Wilsonís books have their own day-to-day lives even if they are living on the fringes of the ďcentralĒ story.
Overall the book has an unusual tone; if not completely melancholy, thereís a strong undercurrent of melancholy to Blind Lake. The title itself gives us a clue as to why this might be the case. The scientists are operating under a type of mental blindness in their work (more on that in my discussion of New Astronomy), Ray and Marguerite never saw each other for what they truly were, and even when the truth is revealed, the consequences can be devastating, as with Chrisís book. Hope is present in the many positive or upbeat aspects of the book, such as the developing relationship between Chris and Marguerite or Tessaís struggle with Mirror Girl. So perhaps melancholy would be less accurate than to say that Wilsonís novel encompasses a sophisticated range of the possibilities and outcomes of any group of human lives.
By all rights, a book with all the good stuff Iíve already described would be out of room for some science. Wilson manages to pack in a bunch of goodies yet, mainly because we get information in the course of events that happen to people we care about. New Astronomy uses some quantum computing devices, and the ending of the book (not to give too much away) takes a stab at that grail of science fiction, transcendence, or less accurately in this case, singularity. What comes next? Whatís the big development that will sideswipe us? Thatís impossible to predict for us now? By definition, this is an impossible goal, to describe the indescribable, to imagine whatís beyond our limited imagination. Recent science fiction has been running into this endpoint more often, with sometimes messy results such as the gloriously incomprehensible conclusion to Brinís Kiln People. Wilson makes it work by stretching out the leap and focusing on how we will react.
Another tried and true idea in science fiction is the question of communication with the Other. This has had its high points in books such as Lemís Solaris and movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Blind Lakeís New Astronomy throws the scientists into the heart of this conundrum: they are observing a lifeform on a planet light years away, with no possibility of two-way communication. Can a human mind comprehend another intelligence when there are possibly no points of reference in common? The clearest discussion of this in Blind Lake takes place in Chapter Twelve, in which Elaine spells out the basic dilemmas to Chris. Ray and the other pessimists believe that no comprehension is possible, while Marguerite and her camp think that with enough observation, some basic conclusions can be drawn. The ending of the book, vis-a-vis transcendence of a type, boosts the book out of this dichotomy, possibly a bit too easily. Wilson leaves Blind Lake in between the two extremes Iíve mentioned, Solaris with the humans returning home defeated and Close Encounters with the humans going for a ride with the jolly new friends. Another example of the bookís uniqueness.
In closing, I would like to emphasize that while the book might sound like a heavy read, the truth is that itís highly readable. Overall, Blind Lake is quite an achievement.
Last modified: September 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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