Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
Of course I know what to expect when reading one of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels: a strange technology or entity has a localized effect that snowballs until it has the potential to completely change the world. We follow the ride primarily from the point of view of one everyman character, but he just happens to know both the scientists and the politicians that are responding to the strange technology. 300 pages later, the story is finished.
But that’s not how Blind Lake works — or at least not exactly.
Yes, there is a strange technology — the O/BECs. Are the O/BECs like telescopes? Well, they allow us to see distant planets, including one that hosts sentient life (aliens!). The center of these machines is referred to as “eyeball alley,” but perhaps the true center of these machines is their quantum technology and adaptive code. But here’s how we make the case against comparing the O/BECs to telescopes: people don’t stand behind an eyepiece. Instead, the O/BECs produce a readout that people can watch on a computer terminal. Who’s to say if what we see on the monitor even closely resembles what the O/BEC was originally programmed to observe?
However, the heart of Blind Lake is not really the O/BECs or what the creatures offer that changes our world. Nor is Chris — the everyman we meet at the start of the novel — really at the heart of this novel.
Instead, it seems like Marguerite’s family is at the heart of the novel. Marguerite is a high level scientist at Blind Lake’s O/BEC installation. Her job is to observe a creature — the Subject — that lives on a distant world. The Subject looks like a cross between a lobster and a Krogan, and it spends its days in what seems to be a factory, doing who knows what, really. While Marguerite is fascinated by what we can and cannot interpret from the Subject’s life, some of the other scientists feel that the O/BEC follows the life of the Subject at the expense of observing other data.
Count Ray Scutter, Marguerite’s ex-husband, is among those scientists who are skeptical about the importance of the Subject’s day-to-day activity. Of course, it should be noted that Ray is controlling, manipulative, and obsessive. His scientific stance may actually just be his way of undermining Marguerite, since it seems he never misses an opportunity to subtly undermine her work.
Marguerite and Ray also have a daughter, Tess, who strikes people as… a little weird. Though the family doesn’t like to talk about it, Tess sees someone when she looks in the mirror — Mirror Girl, who looks just like Tess but with larger eyes. Ray blames Marguerite for Tess’s problems and plots ways to take custody of her away from his ex-wife.
Ray loses access to the courts, however, just after Chris arrives and the Blind Lake facility is quarantined. No one knows what happened, but when one man tries to leave, drones kill him. It seems safe to assume that the quarantine should be taken seriously, even if no one at the facility has any idea what the danger is. Food is trucked in every week, but no news enters or leaves. People grudgingly settle into the life in the lockdown.
And this is why Blind Lake is more like Stephen King’s The Shining than it is like most of Robert Charles Wilson’s other novels. Cut off from the rest of the world in the middle of a snowy Minnesota winter, Ray does not learn the beauty of simplicity or self-reliance. Instead, he begins to lose his mind as he seeks to establish control over everything: the O/BECs, the employees he supervises, and especially Marguerite and Tess.
Blind Lake is a complex novel in which Wilson explores control, understanding, and interpretation. The antagonist is not the O/BECs or the creatures that Marguerite studies, but rather Ray, who insists on controlling everything — and eliminating anything he cannot manipulate or understand. This theme is echoed in other character conflicts, though usually more sympathetically. Chris, for example, became famous for writing a biography that exposed a scientist, at least partially, as a fraud. When the scientist died soon afterward, people declared the death a suicide and publically blamed Chris. Chris feels responsible but some think he needs to accept that he had no control over that situation. Sometimes life just happens, but it rarely stops us from trying to lock it down.
Thematically, Blind Lake is quite interesting — we do often struggle to accept things as they are without insisting on a new structure or control mechanism. Still, this plot left me a little disappointed. I usually race through Wilson’s novels after reading the first hundred pages, but I found myself always putting down Blind Lake to do other things. Even the final reveals, though thought-provoking, felt predictable and therefore underwhelming.
Originally published in 2003, Blind Lake was nominated for a Hugo. Its successor, Spin, would win it, and that seems right since Spin is a much more compelling novel. Having said that, Blind Lake has some of Wilson’s most literary allusions, some of his most convincing characters, and perhaps the most uniquely complex plot he has crafted. While it is not one of the first three Robert Charles Wilson novels I’d recommend to a general sci-fi reader, it is the first Robert Charles Wilson novel I’d recommend to readers who feel they’ve seen all of his tricks.
It sounds more like a psychological novel.
Yeah, but it also has alien lifeforms and futuristic technology! :)
Kind of a gutsy mix.