Robert Charles Wilson,
The Chronoliths
(Tor, 2001)

Early in the 21st century, enormous objects called "chronoliths" begin to materialise in various regions of the world, sometimes in the centre of cities. Large-scale death and destruction accompany their appearance. As if this were not bad enough, a message engraved into the surface makes it clear that these objects are monuments to commemorate a great military victory of someone named "Kuin." Worse again, the date of this battle is 16 years in the future.

What is striking about The Chronoliths is the manner Robert Charles Wilson has chosen to relate the momentous events that surround the continued arrival of these truly monumental objects (some are 1,400 feet high). The perspective throughout is that of a single individual, Scott Warden, who narrates the story in the first person. As a young man living precariously on a beach in Thailand with his wife and baby daughter, he inadvertently witnesses the extraordinary arrival of the first chronolith. His proximity to that event draws him to the attention of Sulamith Chopra, the principal U.S. scientist investigating the physics (quantum) of how chronoliths are sent back through time.

Chopra develops the quantum theory of "tau turbulence" and is convinced by her findings that Scott will play a pivotal role in defeating the chronoliths; i.e., preventing them from materializing on the mainland U.S., an event thought essential to fulfilment of the engraved prophecy. By coincidence (though tau turbulence theory rules out the idea that there is any such thing as coincidence), Scott and Chopra knew each other in their college days. As Scott relates the story of his life during the 16-year period the contrast in scale that characterises the novel becomes evident. Scott's life and his concerns (trying to maintain his relationship with his daughter and to survive economically during a deep worldwide recession) appear small in comparison to the chronoliths themselves and the Earth-spanning events they precipitate.

Over time Scott and Chopra gradually lose contact, but their paths cross one last time. The occasion is the imminent arrival of the first chronolith on U.S. soil, and Scott, in agreement with tau turbulence theory, is brought painfully, dramatically and reluctantly to the centre of events.

In telling the story of Scott's life the writer makes clear that his protagonist is what could be termed a "good" person -- fallible certainly, sometimes weak, but always holding and striving for high ideals, especially concerning the welfare of those closest to him. Scott does not understand Chopra's esoteric tau turbulence theory, and religion plays no part in the story. Yet the theory holds that Scott has a "destiny," that he will be "called on" to do the right thing at a crucial time. If this is the language of quantum physics it is also that of religion. In the background therefore is a subtle amalgam of quantum physics theory, with its space-time paradoxes, and religion, with it teachings of personal destiny.

Although Scott is contrasted with the enormous impersonal strength and power of the chronoliths, he is somehow never diminished in our eyes. In the end he, an "insignificant" person among all the great events, is undoubtedly called upon to do the right thing. It may be that tau turbulence offers an explanation, but because Scott is so clearly a good person, the novel begs the question as to whether the universe at some fundamental level favours such people. This further suggest that quantum physics has the potential to rationalise such beliefs as that of karma or for example the words of St. Luke' s gospel 12.2-9 ("But even the very hairs on your head are numbered").

At the centre of this novel lies firstly the understated but nonetheless great strength of character of the principle protagonist, and secondly a belief that the word "insignificant" can never appropriately be applied to any individual.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 5 October 2002

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