Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2001
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

Scott Warden is a man haunted by the past—and soon to be haunted by the future. In early twenty-first-century Thailand, Scott is an expatriate slacker. Then, one day, he inadvertently witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar in the forested interior. Its arrival collapses trees for a quarter mile around its base, freezing ice out of the air and emitting a burst of ionizing radiation. It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiseled into it commemorates a military victory—sixteen years in the future.

Shortly afterwards, another, larger pillar arrives in the center of Bangkok-obliterating the city and killing thousands. Over the next several years, human society is transformed by these mysterious arrivals from, seemingly, our own near future. Who is the warlord "Kuin" whose victories they note? Scott wants only to rebuild his life. But some strange loop of causality keeps drawing him in, to the central mystery and a final battle with the future.”

This is the second book I’ve read by Robert Charles Wilson, the first being Spin. The Chronoliths had a lot of basic similarities to Spin, though there are many differences in the details.  Of the two novels, I ended up preferring The Chronoliths, and I am curious to see more of Wilson’s work in the future.

My Thoughts:

The basic similarities between Spin and The Chronoliths left me often reading with a vague sense of “déjà lu”. Both stories feature an unexplained scientific phenomenon (involving temporal manipulation) that has a destabilizing effect on modern society.  Within this setting, both stories focus on the personal life of an ordinary protagonist.  The protagonist is a rather self-deprecating adult male who considers himself to be mediocre in his chosen field.  His life is largely shaped by his friendship with a highly regarded genius and his protective, fragile relationship with a vulnerable young woman.  He is hired by the genius, nominally for his professional skills, but actually to provide human companionship. Because of this, he learns about the nature of the scientific phenomenon. Despite these many basic similarities, The Chronoliths is much more than a proto-Spin. The strength of the characters and the ideas explored through the time-traveling monuments shape The Chronoliths into a novel that I will not forget anytime soon.

While there are some echoes of Scott Warden in Spin’s Tyler Dupree, I personally found Scott to be a more compelling protagonist.  While Scott is pulled into the circle studying the chronoliths more or less randomly, his personality is not that of a simple bystander.  He is constantly struggling to shape his own life, and to protect the people he cares about.  Scott is also no stranger to failure, and I was impressed by his maturity in being able to recognize and address his own failings. Specifically, after he fails his wife and daughter, he does not launch a campaign to ‘win’ his wife back.  He accepts that he has damaged his marriage beyond repair, and he does the best he can to salvage his relationship with his daughter (the young woman he wants to protect).  Scott does not always make the wisest decisions, but, to me, his flaws were what made him such a sympathetic protagonist.

Aside from Scott, there are many other characters (of varying levels of development) that fill out the world.  The eccentric genius Sue Chopra and her entourage are intensely dedicated to the studies of the chronoliths.  Through the personal lives of Scott, his daughter, his ex-wife, and her new husband, we see more of the social effects of Kuin’s chronoliths—organizations with strong opinions on Kuin and his supposed ideology.  There are also others that Scott meets throughout the story, such as the ex-pat drug dealer he befriends in Thailand. Though many of the characters are minor, it seems that they all have an important role to play in the story. 

In addition to the characters, I was very intrigued by the role of the chronoliths themselves.  While they’re mysterious and overwhelming, they’re also clearly a human undertaking (though the science is pretty fictional).  Since they presumably come from the near future, understanding the science and motivation behind the structures is never seen as an unobtainable goal. Furthermore, human perception shapes the importance of the chronoliths, in what Sue Chopra calls a ‘feedback loop’.  To put it very simply, when a monument to a future victorious battle appears in the past, it creates an expectation that the battle will occur and end in a certain way.  The belief that this will come to pass makes it more likely to happen.  I thought it was an intriguing way to tell a kind of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ story within the structure of science fiction.  However, rather than being unwitting victims of fate, the characters are consciously working to understand and manipulate the forces at play.   

My Rating: 4/5

The Chronoliths was very similar to Spin in its basic story and some character dynamics, but the many interesting details of The Chronoliths set it apart.  Though it is a story about a mysterious scientific phenomenon, the human perception of the chronoliths was more important than their physical existence. The arrivals of the chronoliths were physically destructive, but their main effect on the world was through human psychology and ideas of fate.  Wilson has an excellent cast assembled to explore these ideas, headed by the flawed and sympathetic Scott Warden.  Scott is an ‘everyman’ character who is drawn into the mystery of the chronoliths, while also trying to maintain his personal life in a changing world. This was a very entertaining and engrossing story, and it now ranks as my favorite novel by Robert Charles Wilson.


  1. Excellent review. I've thoroughly enjoyed Wilson's fiction, especially these two novels. I find it so very refreshing to see good character development in science fiction today.

    Thanks for sharing,

    1. Thanks for your comment, Keith! It's always a treat to read novels that combine good characterization with interesting science fiction ideas, like "The Chronoliths" and "Spin".