Wilson, Robert Charles

Tagged: Author

(1953-    ) US-born author, in Canada from 1962, who began to publish sf with "Equinocturne" for Analog in February 1975 as by Bob Chuck Wilson, though he did not make a significant impact on the field until the 1980s. It was then that he began to publish his polished and inventive novels, which from the first tend to posit an emotion-drenched binary between the mundane world and a better or more intense or intriguingly more alive otherworld, which may be defined in sf terms, variously, as an Alternate Cosmos, or Alternate World, or other Dimension, or some form of coercive quarantine, or a deep lesion in reality occasioned by some traumatic damage to our human powers of Perception. The persistent reiterations of this basic model have lead him, on occasion, into routine formulations; but, throughout, he expresses with vigour and imagination the great Canadian theme of geographical alienation, of being locked into the wrong half of a binary between impoverishment and plenitude; of the Transcendence required to escape that immurement, to emigrate into a place where he may, perhaps, engage in healing Exogamy. His first novel, A Hidden Place (1986), prefiguring many later works, lays down a binary between this world and the realm of Faerie, though the latter is presented in an sf idiom; as in his later work, a protagonist embedded in everyday reality must come to terms with – and perhaps take ethically acceptable advantage of – the fragile opening to a better place that seems to be on offer. The "other place" in Memory Wire (1987) is a kind of Lost World temporally removed from a Cyberpunk twenty-first century; the protagonists make contact with it through "oneiroliths" or dream stones. In Gypsies (1989) an entire family of Earth children, each of them imprisoned into a falsifying adult self, live in various states of pathological denial of their capacity to walk through the walls of this world into a variety of parallel existences (see Parallel Worlds); out of one of these, which is a profoundly Dystopian version of America, comes the Grey Man who haunts the family in his attempts to lure the children "back" to the dreadful reality to which he claims they belong. But they escape him, ending in a pastoral world much like a realm of the Pacific Rim but where it does not rain much. The Divide (1990) locates the binary within the skull of a character who contains two utterly distinct selves; the book slips into melodrama – it is perhaps Wilson's weakest novel – when its split-brain conundrums are solved by a blow to the head. In A Bridge of Years (1991) the divide lies between the present and 1961, which are connected through Time Travel and a plot which deals, in familiar terms, with a long-ranging Changewar between vying reality-lines.

In The Harvest (1993), a more ambitious novel than his first five, an Alien group intelligence offers humanity gifts of Immortality, undying curiosity and wisdom, at the cost of abandoning the thingness of being folk; most accept, for a variety of reasons presented by Wilson with the kind of informed sympathy found in writers of the 1990s – but not generally in more optimistic decades – for transcendentalism of this sort. Mysterium (1994) returns poignantly to the theme of alienation, describing in considerable detail what happens to the residents of a small town when it is translated into a Parallel World, and delineating their mode of escape in terms evocative of the rhetoric of Rapture. In Darwinia (1998), whose first half reiterates Wilson's thematic concerns with clarity and power, the world of 1912 is suddenly bifurcated, with Europe and Africa becoming an utterly strange jungle wilderness; the denouement, in which both realities are contingent upon the Godgame-like actions of some underlying principle of being (perhaps animate), is less controlled. The Chronoliths (2001), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award, shifts the divide temporally, so that the new reality imposes itself, convulsively, from the Near Future, via Time Travel. Blind Lake (2003) is set in an isolated scientific establishment where Aliens on a distant planet are observed through an imaging system run by Quantum Computers (perhaps, secretly, by AIs); a sudden quarantine isolates the cast, and leads, again, towards Transcendence, though on this occasion Wilson's growing skill at humanizing his protagonists refreshes the pattern.

This increasing sophistication and affect also marks Julian: A Christmas Story (2006 chap; much exp vt Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America 2009), which is set in an America beginning a fragile recovery from decades of Ecological degradation, Climate Change and other Disasters, tells the story of the philosophical heretic Comstock, who disavows the fundamentalist Christianity America is prone to, and accepts the tenets of Evolution. His strength and threat lie in his genius as a military commander, a role he plays under the name of Captain Commongold. In Dime-Novel SF style, his childhood friend and sidekick dramatizes this role, and the tale, which is simultaneously boisterous and sombre, deepens as it progresses. It is Wilson's least typical novel; and perhaps his finest, though Burning Paradise (2013) effectively intensifies an increasingly evident pattern in his work, where an unfolding of family dysfunction plays against an sf premise, in this case an Alternate History version of the twentieth century, the Jonbar Point being the early-century discovery of a global "radiosphere" whose effect on Communications is transformative, and generates a world less Technology-dominated and at relative peace. The radiosphere is, however, a viral Hive Mind whose lack of self-consciousness (see Intelligence) leads to conclusions interestingly consistent with some arguments propounded in Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006). The Affinities (2015) is set in a Near Future Toronto where a young man becomes involved in one of the eponymous social-media groups, finding his affinity with his huge cohort both personally overwhelming and theoretically dangerous to the world. Last Year (2016) describes an America in 1876 subtly (and unsubtly) controlled by a twenty-first century entrepreneur, who uses a "mirror" technology to effect his Time Travel into postbellum Washington, where an attempted assassination motors a complex rendering in Wilson's default manner, of the surreal intensity of exercised power.

He has become best-known, however for the Hypotheticals sequence comprising Spin (2005), which won a Hugo for best novel, Axis (2007) and Vortex (2011), and set in a vastly elaborated and more colourful version of the quarantined worlds that subtend his work. The quarantine in this case is, once again, temporal; Earth has been enclosed within a kind of bell jar, from which initially there is no escape, and within which, through an equally mysterious Time Distortion, time is enormously slowed, millions of years passing outside for every year within. The second volume, set on another planet Terraformed for human occupants, begins to unveil hints of an underlying explanation: an ancient galaxy-spanning culture of self-replicating machines known as the Hypotheticals has sequestered the human race, for reasons impossible to decipher. The final volume further reveals that the Hypotheticals are an ancient data-accumulating system or "ecology", "intelligent" but not self-aware, set on course by their long extinct Forerunner builders, and that the vast Macrostructure artefacts, which have both hemmed in and liberated the human race, are negentropic data-conservers, entire species being preserved for the information harvest to come. The Cosmology-drenched final pages imply (but do not assert) that the entire universe of the series is set within something like the glass ball from which Rush Who Speaks utters the story of things forever, in John Crowley's Engine Summer (1979).

Robert Charles Wilson should not be confused with the author of The Crooked Tree (1980), Robert C (Charles) Wilson (1951-    ). Along with William Gibson, Robert J Sawyer and perhaps Peter Watts, he continues to dominate the world of English-language sf in Canada. [JC]

see also: End of Time; Fermi Paradox; Internet; Seiun Award; Superman; Virtual Reality.

Robert Charles Wilson

born Whittier, California: 15 December 1953





  • Spinsfgateway.com (New York: Tor, 2005) [Hypotheticals: hb/Drive Communications]
  • Axissfgateway.com (New York: Tor, 2007) [Hypotheticals: hb/Dave Seeley]
  • Vortexsfgateway.com (New York: Tor, 2011) [Hypotheticals: hb/Age Fotostock]

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