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Mysterium, Robert Charles Wilson, Bantam Spectra, 1994, 309 pp.

Mysterium is another excellent novel from Robert Charles Wilson. In it, he tells a fascinating story, a mix of superb character development and headlong plot twists. I could take the time to break down and categorize the influences on Mysterium -- late-Dick Gnosticism, the police state from Wilson's own Gypsies, some foreshadowing of the reality switch in Wilson's Darwinia -- but such an exercise would miss the ingenuity of this novel. Wilson creates an entirely unique, seamless storyline and keeps the reader intensely involved with the people and places. Ordinary people and ordinary places, thrown into a vastly strange situation. Is the main premise of Mysterium plausible? I hardly concerned myself with that -- Wilson gives the right amount of exposition, then gets busy with the implications for the people I cared about.

The book opens with a section entitled "Before." Before what? Well, before some researchers discover a strange, perhaps alien artifact in Turkey, bring it back to the States, and begin experimenting on it. Will these people never learn? The testing occurs at the Two Rivers Physical Research Laboratory, just outside the small Michigan town of Two Rivers. In this chapter, we are introduced to Professor Stern, the famous scientist who takes charge of the Laboratory. Stern's nephew, Howard Poole, also works there, but lives in Two Rivers, at a boarding house run by Evelyn Woodward. Evelyn is engaged to Dexter Graham, a local school teacher. One night, a strange glow emanates from the research facility, and Dexter and Evelyn wake up to find that Two Rivers has been shunted to a parallel world. Two Rivers, along with a good chunk of Michigan, in an exact circle centring around the Laboratory.

This parallel world has little patience for the freedoms of good old America -- Two Rivers has entered a strict police state. Much of the novel hinges on the encounter of Dexter and his friends with the machinery of the ubiquitous "Bureau." Curfews, public hangings, informers, and a little bit of torture. Of course, the Proctors of the Bureau do not all agree on the recommended actions with regard to Two Rivers, and so we get a few glimpses into the inner workings of this strange society. Meanwhile, Dexter and Howard are doing what they can to understand what happened at the research facility. And why they both still feel that Stern is alive...

Wilson's characters are, again, top-notch -- interesting, well-written, and completely credible. Dexter Graham is not a muscle-bound hero by any means, nor is he the scientist-saves-all hero of some science fiction. He is a school teacher, grieving the loss of his wife and son in a fire, doing the best he can in difficult circumstances. Dexter is also quite good-hearted, but with his own set of flaws and wholly believable as such. The way that he and Evelyn drift apart is also plausible -- the Proctor in charge of Two Rivers lives at Evelyn's bed-and-breakfast and that situation changes the relationship between Dexter and Evelyn immensely. I liked how Wilson brings in the character of Linneth Stone, an academic (ethnology) from this new world. She has faced her own set of trials, and is "given" a sabbatical to study Two Rivers. The Proctor who informs her of the new change in her life plans has read her last book: "It's a fine scholarly work, insofar as I can judge. The Ideological Branch gave it careful attention, of course. Disseminating falsehoods anti-religio is still a felony. But we do try to be reasonable. Science is science" (59). When Linneth and Dexter meet, the clash of cultures is fascinating. As an ethnologist, as well as a female scientist in a male dominated society, Linneth can see what is going on with eyes unblinded by prejudice. Insofar as such a thing is possible -- Wilson's novel has its own prejudgment of the society Linneth comes from, making some of Linneth's choices later on the "right" ones. Even though, as she says earlier, "'Comparative ethnology isn't advocative'" (59). But which scientist is truly objective? Linneth is an outsider, forced into solitude, who finds something more human in the Two Rivers way of life. Some of the best passages in the book are found in the conversations between Dexter and Linneth. Linneth makes some ethnological observations about American society: "Linneth had sampled the magazines and newspapers of his world and found them brash but often vulgar and concerned above all else with fashion: fashions in politics as much as fashions in dress; and fashion, Linneth thought, was only that drab whore Conformity in gaudier paint" (188). But of course that same society produced Dexter, just the right kind of guy.

Wilson also shines with the minor characters of Mysterium. Howard Poole has his own life and set of goals, his own trials and ambitions. Our knowledge of Poole helps make the ending satisfying. Demarch, the Proctor in charge of Two Rivers, is also characterized well, and we even begin to understand some of the pressures put on the human psyche by this society. However, Clifford Stockton (or Cliffy, as he is called by his mother) is probably my favourite character. Clifford is a smart kid, dealing with an uncaring or oblivious mother and trying to find out what is happening in his home town. He makes friends with both Howard and Dexter and helps them with their respective quests. Clifford is also responsible for the explosive scene that makes such a fantastic illustration for the front cover (some lovely art on my edition by Rob Wood). As well, Clifford writes the diary excerpt that forms such a lovely coda for the book in "After."

Mysterium is a fine novel, one that I have no complaints about at all. I won't even say that I wished it were longer, because Wilson wraps it up with such style that I was thoroughly satisfied. Fans of hard science fiction might want to know more about the alien artifact that causes all the uproar -- for myself, I was guessing that any kind of explanation would be less gratifying than Wilson's examination of the implications of its use.


Last modified: December 6, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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