Burning 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.
I was excited about this, and really wanted to like it, but it just fell flat for me. Ultimately, I just couldn’t maintain enough interest to keep reading.
I’m curious as to how an autopsy would show that the simulacra lack autonomy. Can you elaborate on this point, or would it spoil important plot information?
I may need to change the wording of that sentence. Still, it’s not a spoiler as it’s in the first chapter. Most of what’s known about the sims comes from an essay written after dissecting a captured sim. It’s revealed that the sims have lungs, a heart, and a digestive system on the inside. After that, the Correspondence Society seems to rely on inference and theory.
Aha, that makes more sense. Thank you for clarifying.