Monday, October 11, 2010

Mysterium - Robert Charles Wilson

A mysterious artefact is discovered in the Turkish desert. Lethally radioactive it does not appear to be constituted of normal matter. The small town of Two Rivers, Michigan USA is the site of the R&D establishment set up to study it under the direction of Theoretical Physics laureate Alan Stern. With the townsfolk we experience the night the scientists decide to bombard the artefact with high-energy beams, the night when everything within two miles of the lab is transported to a parallel universe.

Two River’s new world is one in which the Roman Empire never became Christian and Gnostic Christianity triumphed. It’s perhaps fifty years technically behind the world Two Rivers left. There is no America: an independent Anglo-French theocracy occupies the continent, warring with the Spanish empire to the south: the race is on for the first nuclear bomb. The Inquisition soon arrives in Two Rivers to purge heresy and investigate both the advanced technologies to be found there and the strange events which led to its incursion. The resulting conflicts drive the plot.

I wonder why Robert Charles Wilson wrote this book. It’s a reprint of something he did in 1994 so perhaps it was an apprentice piece? The characters are stock; the narrative lacks focus as we struggle to understand what we should be caring about while the resolution at the end is both contrived and unsatisfactory.

What stands out above the blandness are a couple of ideas. At one point one of the bad guys, a religious inquisitor comments on the practice of religion in Two Rivers: “Their theology is impoverished too. Like a line drawing of Christianity, all the details left out,” (as compared to Gnosticism – p. 287). Something interesting there which is never developed.

Earlier the novel’s guru, Alan Stern poses this question (p. 49, I have précised slightly).

“Think about Albert [the family dog]. He functions in every way normally, within the parameters of his species. He can learn, do tricks and recognise you. But despite all that, there’s a limit to his understanding. If we talk about gravitons or Fourier transforms he can’t follow the conversation. His mental universe can’t contain such concepts.

“We’re sitting here asking spectacular questions about the universe, how it began, about everything which exists. And if we can ask a question then sooner or later we can answer it; we assume there are no limits to knowledge. But maybe the dog makes the same mistake? He doesn’t know what lies beyond the neighbourhood but if he found himself in a strange location he would approach it with the tools of comprehension available to him. And soon he would understand it doggie-fashion, by sight and smell and so on. For him there are no limits except the ones he can’t comprehend. So what about us? Are there questions about the universe we can’t ask? Things we can’t know? Are there real limits to our comprehension as invisible to us as they are to Albert?”

This is a good question which deserves some thought but it’s not explored in this novel.

In summary this book barely kept my attention: it’s slow and sprawling; the characters are cardboard and we just don’t care about them; the plot is unfocused and unengaging. The best thing about it is the title and the cover art. Wilson has written better novels subsequently and has carved out a minor place in ‘literary SF’ so I’d recommend sticking with those.