The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Cover art by Jim Burns
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
It began in 2021 in the jungles of Thailand, with a sound like a bomb going off. Curious, expat Scott Warden left his wife and daughter in Bangkok to accompany an old chum on a harebrained chase to find out what happened. They find a circle of felled trees surrounding a strange cold pillar upon which is inscribed the announcement of a victory by a mysterious conqueror named Kuin.
The date of the victory is twenty years in the future.
Scott and his buddy head back to Bangkok, but on the way they encounter a group of Thai soldiers who behave little better than bandits, arresting them and holding them incommunicado. Eventually some US military personnel show up to debrief Scott and his buddy, but his inability to get back have done serious damage on his personal home front.
When Scott left, his daughter was showing evidence of illness, but it doesn't seem that bad. While he's being held by those clowns with weapons and can't get word out about his situation, Kaitlin comes down with a form of flesh-eating strep that destroys one of her ears, leaving her deaf in it and the hearing in her other ear impaired. His wife, disgusted at what she perceives as abandonment, takes their daughter back to America and files for divorce.
So Scott returns to the rental shack on the beach to find his wife and daughter vanished and their remaining possessions stolen by local thieves. Frantic, he asks a neighbor who puts him in touch with the doctor who treated Kaitlin, and he learns what transpired while he was in custody.
Now Scott must put his life back together without his wife and daughter. His first act is to return to the United States, thinking that by doing so he can put the behind him the mysterious object that wrecked his life, an object now being dubbed a "chronolith," a portmanteau of "chronological monolith."
Here we have the first sign that our protagonist is not your typical science fiction hero, but more of a mainstream protagonist thrust into a science fiction world. If this story were being told by Bill Weaver or Anson Clemson (protagonists of Through the Looking Glass by John Ringo and Warp Speed by Travis S. Taylor, respectively), the first thing either of those characters would try to do would be find out just what the hell happened.
But while Scott Warden is trying to leave the Chronolith behind, he finds it won't let him. He's just beginning to develop a sort of rapprochement with his former wife and their daughter when a new chronolith appears -- right in the middle of Bangkok. From the first news reports that break onto programming on every channel (think the level of continuous news coverage we had right after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon), it's clear that the damage is horrific. And this time the chronolith's form is more sophisticated -- not a simple obelisk, but a stylized human form, perhaps an image of the mysterious Kuin.
Even as humanity is struggling to process the horror of thousands dead and millions injured by this mysterious object that may be an intrusion from the future, another chronolith appears in Pyongyang, capital of Cambodia. Over the next several years, more of these terrible objects appear like ghostly giant feet stamping across Asia -- Ho Chi Mihn City, Macao, Sapporo, the Kanto Plain, Yichang. This period is given a brief treatment made possible by the choice of first-person narration, in a summary that also makes clear that Scott is writing this account some years after the fact -- which lets us know that no matter what happens, no matter how many people are killed by these mysterious objects as they destroy everything in their environment, the protagonist will survive, and remain in a condition to remember and record his experiences.
During this period technology continues to advance. Some of it may seem a little dated only a decade after its publication, such as the robotic vacuum cleaners that are supposed to be first appearing in the early 2020's, but in fact started appearing only a few years after the book came out. But other things, such as the regenerative medicine that rebuilds Kaitlin's ravaged ear, have remained beyond reach (although this is at least partly the result of the culture wars that have swirled around the ethical questions of stem-cell research).
Although Scott had intended to immerse himself in technical writing, inevitably the scientific questions about the nature of the chronoliths draws him, and he begins to meet with scientists researching the nature of time. He's also aware of the growing social effects of these mysterious appearances from the future, the fear and hatred and obsession with the unknown that might be terrible or liberating, and how both the comfortable and the disaffected respond to it. The disruptions send the economy into a recession, and the resulting dislocations only serve to further increase social tensions as displaced workers grow increasingly frustrated in their search for employment.
Scott is drawn into the Federal government's investigation of the Chronolith Phenomenon, recommended by physicist Sulamith Chopra. Thus he will become a witness to the unravelling of society as fascination with the mysterious Kuin becomes obsession. The futile attempt to destroy the Yiching Chronolith with a nuclear strike only reinforces the sense that these things are something almost supernatural, that the world is changing in some strange and terrible way that leads people to respond with irrational behaviors.
The research team gets a break when they discover that a rise in radiation levels precedes the appearance of a chronolith. Now they have a tool for predicting their appearance, which means they can give a warning that will get the ordinary people safely out of the area, preventing the horrific casualties of the early "city-busters." Furthermore, they can make sure that they and their instruments are in the area and ready to observe the actual arrival process, in hopes of learning just what's going on with the chronoliths, even how they were created.
And then all the signs point to Jerusalem as the location of the next Chronolith's appearance. Suddenly all the Western world's millennialist fears and hopes are unleashed upon the world. Southeast Asia has already come unzipped, national government giving way to warlordism, economies disintegrating to terrified people willing to do anything, however degrading, to gain a crumb of bread, a mouthful of rice -- but those countries were always prone to tyrannies held together only by fear and naked power. Now the Western nations, countries with long traditions of democracy and orderly civil society, began to tremble with the waves of mass hysteria as the mysterious figure of Kuin becomes the focus of cultish behavior. Thousands of people flock to the various Kuin cults, exacerbating the disruptions of an economy not just in the toilet, but rapidly going down the drain.
Even medical science goes backwards, losing key treatments and technologies. When Scott's daughter Kaitlin becomes swept up in one of the Kuin cults as part of her own personal search for meaning and as a result contracts an infection, the resultant damage to her reproductive tract is described as "irreversible." Part of it might just be the social convention that one never pins too much hope on future medical breakthroughs, but lives as though what is available in the present moment is all that ever will be -- but Scott's resigned acceptance of the idea that Kaitlin will never be able to give him grandchildren seems to suggest that even reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, which were already available when the novel was written, have been lost.
As the story proceeds toward the arrival of the ultimate chronolith in the wilds of Wyoming, a statement of Kuin's ability to humiliate even the most powerful nation on Earth, Scott continues to be as much an observer, blown to and fro by the winds of history, as an active participant in the story. Still, the philosophical implications of the chronoliths, particularly in relation to ideas of determinism and predestination vs. free will, are fascinating. Is the very act of trying to investigate the chronoliths in order to protect innocent people from the destructive force of their arrival and maybe even disrupt their formation in fact giving someone the very tools that will create them -- and if so, can the process be stopped, or is it already fated to be from the moment the original chronolith forced itself into the jungles of Thailand?
There's something very literary about the mystery and ambiguity that surrounds the figure of Kuin, even in the narrator's present as he reflects back on the time of the chronolilths' appearance from the perspective of one who survived the wars that followed the Final Chronolith, the wars that may well have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, or perhaps some form of time loop. Was there ever a single individual known as Kuin, or did the name take a life of its own, becoming a memetic or mythological figure whose power over people's imaginations was so powerful that his followers were willing to fight and die for him?
On the whole, it's an interesting new take on the idea of time travel. From H. G. Wells on, writers have generally focused upon sending their characters through time, and the consequences of them interacting with the future or the past. Here we instead have the future sending things backward in time, or perhaps more strictly, the information necessary to create the desired things at the destination time, and the response of human societies and cultures to these mysterious arrivals that herald terrible events in the future. However, it's quite possible that there will never be the definitive work of fiction to take on the question of determinism vs. free will as it relates to time travel, for we never truly know the roots of our own intentions. To what degree to we decide to set forth to do something, and to what degree do our circumstances lead us into those actions?
Review posted November 14, 2012
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