Robert Charles Wilson
Tor
August 2003
ISBN 0-765-34160-3

Robert Charles Wilson garnered a Hugo nomination for Blind Lake, a thriller set in a community which observes alien worlds. In Wilson's speculative future, some time around 2040, a technology singularity produces a device capable of observing extrasolar planets. No one knows exactly how it works, and so the fear that often accompanies significant scientific developments becomes particularly acute. The two communities established to observe other worlds feature daunting barriers and guarded gates. And yet within, Blind Lake feels like any small town. The new technology forms the key industry, supported by the usual stores, service industries, and schools. Even the major breakthrough-- the site has discovered an alien civilization-- seemingly reflects the ordinariness of Blind Lake. The operation follows a subject (called the Subject) through an extra-terrestrial version of nine to five, a mundane, if alien, routine.

Suddenly and without explanation, Blind Lake goes under a complete quarantine. Even communication with and news from the rest of the world cease. Robot trucks deliver food; military drones kill anyone who tries to escape. While the residents try to cope with and comprehend their strange new situation, the Subject in the viewer starts behaving strangely.

So do the observers. As months pass without any explanation, tensions mount. The protagonist, a scientist named Marguerite Hauser, learns that her daughter, Tessa, has started hearing messages from someone she calls "Mirror Girl." The adults can only interpret this as a symptom of a mental disorder; fans of science fiction remain less certain. As most of the senior management had been attending a conference when the quarentine occured, Hauser's ex-husband, Raymond Scutter, finds himself the senior manager, a position for which he proves ill-equipped.

Scutter emerges as the book's villain: perhaps too entirely. As his mental state deteriorates, he stalks Marguerite, threatens Chris Carmody (a visiting reporter with whom Marguerite has become involved), kidnaps his daughter, and, finally, attacks the installation itself.

In addition to the principal characters, we learn about the life of the town. Wilson attempts the "Our Town under seige" found in, say, Stephen Dobyn's The Church of the Dead Girls or various Stephen King thrillers. Like those authors, he succeeds to a point. I could believe in the characters, but none of them drew me in, and the attempt to individuate so many people does not always work.

Two alien intelligences appear in this novel. The Subject itself proves a compellingly banal, alien Joe Average Guy. The other alien intelligence may be a type familiar to SF reader, but it raises worthwhile questions.

Wilson can write very well. Consider the characterization of Scutter through his love of Hostess DingDongs:

Since the lockdown began Ray had been keeping a stash of DingDongs locked in his desk drawer. It was embarrassing to acknowledge, but he happened to like baked goods and he especially liked DingDongs with his breakfast coffee, and he could live without the inevitable smart-ass commentary about Polysorbate 80 and "empty calories," thank you very much. He like peeling back the brittle wrapper; he liked the sugar-and-cornstarch smell that came wafting out; he like the glutinous texture of the pastry and the way hot coffee flensed the slightly chemical aftertaste from his palate.

But DingDongs weren't included in the weekly black truck delivery. Ray had been canny enought to buy up the remaining inventory from the local grocer and the convenience shop in the Plaza lobby. He had started with a couple of cartons, but they'd be gone before long. The last six DingDongs in the entire quarantined community of Blind Lake, as far as Ray could determine, were currently residing in his desk drawer. After that,nothing. Cold Turkey. Obviously, it wouldn't kill him to do without. But he resented being forced into it by this ongoing bureaucratic fuck-up, this endless mute lockdown (151-2).
Wilson plays the DingDongs well, returning to them habitually.

He does not write well consistently. I found Wilson's style became clunky in places. He does manage effective suspense, making liberal use of established techniques such as "cliffhangers" at chapters' ends.

The final explanation for the lockdown may disappoint some readers, but the explanation for a thriller often pales beside the anticipation. It serves its purpose of creating the situation, and it raises some of those questions SF readers enjoy asking. And while I found the resolution a little too pat, a little too like the old twentieth-century movies Tess watches, I nevertheless enjoyed the book.

Afterword:

I wrote the author regarding an anomaly found in the first editions of this book. In both the original and the mass-market paperback from 2003/04, the back cover calls Marguerite Hauser "Nerissa Iverson." Tellingly, several published reviews do the same. Wilson writes:

This question has come up so often I had to boilerplate an answer. This is it:

"Nerissa Iverson" was the name I gave Marguerite in the book proposal I first submitted to Tor. She was Marguerite in the ms, but production and advertising must have worked from the proposal. "Nerissa" shows up not only on the flap copy of the hardcover and the back of the mass market edition, but in reviews from Booklist and elsewhere. I did bring all this to the attention of my editors before the pb was printed, but Nerissa slipped through yet again.

I'm reminded of an old (1960s) Signet edition of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, with a plot description on the back cover that was not only near-incoherent but described some other book altogether. ("Moon cities plunge underground!" it began.)

Maybe I'll name a character Nerissa Iverson in some future book, just to confuse the hell out of everybody.

Again, thanks for asking -- one of the nice things about this is that I'm reminded that people really do read my books. Including the back cover!

Bob

Portions of this review, by this author, first appeared at www.bureau42.com