Robert Charles Wilson, Blind Lake

Starfish or theological construct?

I keep going back to science fiction hoping that I’ll find another Le Guin or Butler or Delaney or Bradbury, but SF and fantasy nearly always disappoint. Still: I read science fiction like a maniac when I was a kid, all the Gnome Press on my Dad’s shelves, all the yellowing Bantams and Pocket Books, shelf after shelf of Clark and Heinlein and Vonnegut (in science fiction? why in science fiction?). What a comedown: typical science fiction (to be fair, typical genre fiction) is like mediocre beer: kinda flat, kinda tasteless, but, what the hell – I ordered it, so I may as well drink it.

Wilson’s novel of first contact isn’t bad, though not as fully realized as, say, Arrival. And even Arrival got to be drudgery in its last chapters. I just don’t have patience for this kind of mechanical plotting anymore.

Wilson’s conceit is that earthbound artificial intelligence, tasked to search the heavens for alien life, finds it. However, the task requires a level of self-programming that tips the machine into consciousness. Via quantum entanglement, “The Eye” finds similar machine intelligences across the universe. On one inhabited planet after another, they jointly erupt into enormous starfish-like latticeworks whose activities panic the inhabitants. On Earth that panic leads the government to quarantine the affected facilities. Lucky for us, this trans-galactic intelligence is entirely benign, though the ghosts in the machine can be very unsettling.

There’s a Roger Penrose quality to this idea: technology becomes the divinity that pervades and connects the universe. Sebastian, a secondary character (modeled after the sort of thinker who wins Templeton prizes) makes this explicit:

…there’s something living in the physical processes of the universe. Not necessarily creating it. Modifying it, maybe. But chiefly living in it. Eating the past and excreting the future.

I love that last sentence. But the novel is hobbled by sci-fi’s character development conventions. Protagonists are usually clueless about their real motivations, which stem (is Dr. Freud on call?) from long-suppressed childhood traumas. A novel’s three or five or seven hundred pages will lead a patient reader through each individual layer of the onion. This can become pretty tedious.

I bought Blind Lake because it secured a Hugo nomination and, I figured, might actually be worth a wasted night. Alas, I’m blind  to its award-winning qualities..

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