“And if a mindless and conscienceless entity rolled through the sky like an insect god, a blind guarantor of human progress, maybe she could have lived with that knowledge…could have, if she hadn’t seen the blood.”
Robert Charles Wilson is at his most poetic describing vast interconnected cosmic consciousnesses and at his least depicting human interactions. Bookended by encounters with alien ecologies, Burning Paradise is primarily a romance on the run novel, and it suffers for it. A series of clandestine road trips and miserly promises that slightly more will be revealed at the next safehouse, it’s a throwback to ’90s conspiracy thrillers that never quite justifies its anachronisms. The world feels incomplete, and the plot is made tiresome by the reader’s suspicion than everything the characters believe in is false.
In 2014 on an alternate Earth, an atmospheric layer dubbed the radiosphere facilitates global communication without the need for satellites, cell towers, or the Internet. Unbeknownst to all but a few academics and their families, the radiosphere is also a living entity. An alien hypercolony of mindless organisms acting in concert, it’s been manipulating messages sent through it for the last century. Its interference is seemingly benign, and as a result there was never a World War II, or a cold war, and there are no modern conflicts of religious extremism. But it also has human-like agents– green-blooded sims that it uses to assassinate any who know of the hypercolony’s existence. Though it appears to have a peaceful agenda overall, it’s demonstrably not above murder in order to maintain its invisible grip on Earth’s communication networks.
But the peacekeeping efforts of the hypercolony seem to be falling apart, and surviving members of the resistance are being contacted by a new breed of sim who claim to be part of a parasitic rival ecology inside the hypercolony. Forced to flee their homes, the novel’s protagonists are manipulated into making a choice. Will they acquiesce to the more militaristic members of their ranks and take action to destroy the hypercolony, or is it in the best interest of humanity to keep the radiosphere intact?
Unfortunately, Wilson makes the right answer obvious from the very first chapters. As a world-builder, his premises have always been intriguing, but he sometimes leaves the details a little too thin. While that’s certainly a prudent instinct when crafting alternate histories, where too many fanciful changes might dispel belief, it works against him here. There just isn’t enough impetus in the setting in to justify the relatively short-sighted beliefs of the protagonists. Even given the restricted technological restraints of this alternate Earth, the militia-inspired, black helicopter style paranoia subscribed to by the main characters feels dated, flat, and out of place. The author clearly doesn’t believe in it, and his uncharacteristic handholding makes the journey to the inevitable conclusion tiresome. Of course humans make the wrong decision, knowing full well it’s the wrong decision, and Earth faces a more dangerous, unknown future because of it.
As an exercise in ideas, Burning Paradise has its moments. But it’s a disappointment that there’s more left up to the reader’s imagination than there is present in the text. As set up at the end of the book after the radiosphere has been destroyed:
“Amicability and peace-making were increasingly seen as tainted impulses; what seemed most authentically human was everything the hypercolony had suppressed: bellicosity, cynicism, suspicion, aggression.”
That’s a fine ending for a short story or a television episode, For a science fiction novel, that’s where I expect the story to start.