The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson (2001)
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 tress 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 chiselled 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.
Blurb from the 2002 Tor paperback edition
Scott Warden is wasting his life away in Thailand, to the annoyance of his wife, Janice. When he joins his friend Mitch Paley in investigating an explosion the mountains, Scott is unaware that his daughter – infected with a flesh eating parasite – has been taken to hospital.
A giant blue monument has somehow ‘appeared’ out of nowhere, converting the matter it has displaced into itself and absorbing so much energy from the surrounding area that that temperatures plummet.
On the monument is an inscription commemorating Kuin’s successful invasion of the area twenty years and three months into the future.
Wilson’s tale of time, coincidence and causality begins to get more complex as it transpires that Sue Choprah, a scientist who knew Scott from years ago, believes Scott to be the focus of Time’s Arrow.
The monuments are being sent into the past in order to create (through the media) the very situation that Kuin needs to come to power.
So, following the emergence of other Kuin monuments across the world, from Israel to Mexico, we enter a period of American Entropy where the infrastructure of the US begins to break down.
Pro-Kuin appeasement groups rise in popularity and the emergence of further monuments (which can now be detected in advance with a high degree of accuracy) causes haj’s in which thousands of young people travel across the world to witness the vent.
The big events are contrasted by Scott’s rather dysfunctional relationships. He does not communicate well with his father and is haunted by the memories of his dead bi-polar mother. His wife and daughter left him after Thailand and she got married again, to a rather too obviously pompous and unsuitable man.
This seems to be a common trend of late. Intersperse the current events with scenes or recollections of the hero’s harrowing private life.
Sons and fathers not speaking to each other is popular. See Reed’s ‘Beyond The Veil of Stars’: Ben Bova’s ‘Mars’ etc.
Whether Wilson is trying to create a parallel between the monuments crossing time and communication between generations is not known. If so, it doesn’t really work. Scott’s psychological family history didn’t really add anything to the novel and could quite feasibly have been dispensed with, or reworked as a Hallmark screenplay.
Scott is recruited by Choprah to work within her team, a job which it seems it is his destiny and his curse, since it attracts danger to both himself and his family.
The science elements centre around the concepts of ‘Tau Turbulence’, ‘Calabi-Yau manipulation’ and the ramifications of sending such objects back though time which themselves alter the future. Wilson’s scientific explanations seem plausible enough, although I have no idea whether they are related to any current theories on the issue (if indeed such theories exist at all)
The novel builds to a clever and exciting denouement, and an intriguing epilogue, which gives us just enough information to work out what happened next.
It’s a good novel, somewhat marred by Hallmark plot elements, but an unlikely award nominee.