fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBurning Paradise by Robert Charles WilsonBurning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

Members of the Correspondence Society have discovered an extra-terrestrial entity, which they refer to as the “Hypercolony,” in the atmosphere. The Hypercolony secretly monitors and subtly alters terrestrial transmissions in order to maintain peace on Earth. A few skirmishes aside, they have been successful, and humanity is once again celebrating the anniversary of the 1914 Armistice Day.

Earth may be a paradise, but it would be a mistake to consider the Hypercolony a benevolent entity. Its algorithms guide it to intervene in a way that will maximize its own chances for survival, a drive that makes it seem symbiotic. However, when the Hypercolony discovered the Correspondence Society in 2007, it sent agents — sims — to eliminate the threat. The “sims” — short for “simulacra” — look like humans, though an autopsy will reveal that they lack autonomy and also that they have a vegetative green matter in addition to their blood and human organs. The surviving members of the Correspondence Society have been trained to retreat when they suspect a sim is nearby.

Cassie, a young woman who was orphaned in the 2007 attack, is one of those survivors. When Burning Paradise begins, her aunt, Nerissa, has trusted her to take care of her younger brother, Thomas, for the night. Cassie rarely sleeps well, and when she looks out her window this night, she sees a suspicious man. Well trained, Cassie collects a few belongings and her brother and they together take to the road to escape the threat. When Nerissa returns home, she realizes what has happened and begins her own journey to find Cassie and Thomas before the sims do. The characters — a collection of divorcees, scientists, mechanics, and young people forced to improvise in the face of danger — are complex, diverse, and engaging.

If there is a flaw to Burning Paradise, it is that some readers will find its antagonists too familiar. The Hypercolony recalls the Hypotheticals from Wilson’s most acclaimed work, Spin. Try and spot the intergalactic entity: an “ecology … scattered throughout the galaxy, drawn to the warmth and resources of young stars.” The Hypercolony, because of its sims, presents a different problem than the Hypotheticals do. But perhaps they evolved from a common ancestor.

Fortunately, Burning Paradise offers a lot besides the familiar. Like so many of Wilson’s other novels, I found that it created an open space through which to consider a wide variety of Big Ideas. Can the Hypercolony be considered a conscious entity? Can ecologies exist on an intergalactic scale? What would a peaceful twentieth century have looked like? Some readers will find that Wilson’s new novel, with its premise of constant surveillance and its atmosphere of either blissful ignorance or obsessive paranoia, speaks to today’s more immediate social concerns. I was pleased to note that Burning Paradise often invites connections to science fiction novels from decades ago. As always with Wilson’s work, I found allusions to Arthur C. Clarke, but also to Jonathan Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. And the plot has more pace than any other Robert Charles Wilson story I’ve (so far) read.

Robert Charles Wilson is one of our most successful science fiction writers. He won the Hugo Award for Spin, which may be the greatest science fiction novel of the twenty-first century. Some readers may find it difficult to read Burning Paradise without finding it lacking next to Spin and its two successors, Axis and Vortex. However, readers that like stand alone science fiction novels jam packed with ideas and a swift plot are likely to enjoy Burning Paradise.

Published in 2013. From Robert Charles Wilson, the author of the Hugo-winning Spin, comes Burning Paradise, a new tale of humans coming to grips with a universe of implacable strangeness. Cassie Klyne, nineteen years old, lives in the United States in the year 2015—but it’s not our United States, and it’s not our 2015. Cassie’s world has been at peace since the Great Armistice of 1918. There was no World War II, no Great Depression. Poverty is declining, prosperity is increasing everywhere; social instability is rare. But Cassie knows the world isn’t what it seems. Her parents were part of a group who gradually discovered the awful truth: that for decades—back to the dawn of radio communications—human progress has been interfered with, made more peaceful and benign, by an extraterrestrial entity. That by interfering with our communications, this entity has tweaked history in massive and subtle ways. That humanity is, for purposes unknown, being farmed. Cassie’s parents were killed for this knowledge, along with most of the other members of their group. Since then, the survivors have scattered and gone into hiding. Cassie and her younger brother Thomas now live with her aunt Nerissa, who shares these dangerous secrets. Others live nearby. For eight years they have attempted to lead unexceptional lives in order to escape detection. The tactic has worked. Until now. Because the killers are back. And they’re not human.


  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.