Books of 2017, #1: Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson

I didn’t expect to make a first post in this series this quickly—but I started this book around 6pm yesterday, and ended up finishing just after 11pm. A little late for me, but I wasn’t inclined to stop.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised—I’ve found most of Robert Charles Wilson’s books compulsively readable, and one of their virtues is that they don’t carry a lot of fat; although reading ebooks can obscure relative length, he simply doesn’t do doorstops.

It’s one of the several ways they’re not your average Science-Fiction novels.

If you read the synopses you could be forgiven for thinking they were plot-driven; certainly they all start with some relatively high-concept plot: Spin – the Earth has been enclosed in a bubble that retards time. The Chronoliths – mysterious monuments start appearing from the future. The Affinities – humans can be classified into 22 distinct groups.

But they’re not plot-driven, or at least they bury the mechanics of their plot deep within the organic choices of their characters. Specific individuals, who get caught up in events; often through relationships, sometimes because small actions of theirs pull them in, or perhaps because their action is an unintended precipitating incident.

In the case of Last Year, Jessie Cullum is in the right place at the right time—twice in fact—and his life is upended. Again.

Another distinctive feature of his stories is that their ends are…hard to describe. It’s tempting to call them messy or ambgiuous, but that isn’t quite right—it brings to mind authors who can’t stick the landing, where the book ends because they just ran out of stuff, or got tired of typing.

It’s a little more like they’re open-ended, except that’s not really it either—although Spin did end up with a sequel (though it was more a book in the same universe), that’s the exception rather than the rule.

I guess the best way to describe it is that the characters rarely feel like they quit existing the moment you turn the last page—that they have more life ahead of them, and more stuff is going to happen to them; it may be epic or mundane, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that while this particular story may be done, while this particular segment of their life may be finished, it’s neither an end nor a setup for more.

Books of 2015, #18: The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson

First, a side note: I am always a little bit surprised at the consistency of Robert Charles Wilson’s authorial voice.

Most authors find consistent voices at the cost of being idiosyncratic, or put more kindly, “instantly recognizable”.

On the other hand, Robert Charles Wilson voice is so neutral it disappears…and yet, of his novels that I’ve read, I couldn’t tell you with certainty which were written in the first person and which were written in the third—in memory they feel far more similar than they could ever be different.

I suppose much of it comes from the fact that his narratives are generally about witnesses—whether a first-person recollection (as The Affinities is), or third-person centered around a main character or characters who are involved but not prime movers in great events (as in Burning Paradise), they are more about how the characters are changed by the world and less about how they change the world.

And yet, their actions have consequences.

I read a review of The Affinities just before it came out that left me with lowered expectations; and yet, it was wrong. Although I understand that the book probably isn’t for everyone, I find it an interesting meditation on what it means to belong to a group, and what it means to identify completely with such a group, and what it means to a society when people no longer identify as part of the larger polity.

I suspect that some will find the subject uninteresting, but I believe the question of our investment in the greater society in which we exist is an important one. It’s not too much to say that the U.S. has come to its current political impasse precisely because people no longer think of themselves as part of anything other than the tribe they happen to have chosen.

Not that this is a “message” story—really it’s just a story of families, and what you do when your family rejects you, or you reject it—but if science fiction is defined by using the idea of something that isn’t in order to sharpen and refine our view of what is, I think this novel has to be called SF even when there’s nothing very outre happening.