What if Great War never happened?
JUST in time for its centenary, Robert Charles Wilson asks, what if the First World War had never happened? What if all the little things that go wrong before a breakdown in diplomacy had, instead, gone right? What if we were today celebrating a Great Armistice instead of a Great War?
It’s actually a pretty unusual question, and trust Canada’s most thoughtful writer of speculative fiction to pose it. While almost every other alternate history novel considers the consequences of some nation or general winning or losing a critical battle, Wilson’s very readable take on the genre is considering a much more radical departure: a past where cool heads prevailed. How likely is that? Perhaps not very. In fact, in this version of the 21st century, the world is at peace only because humanity is being subtly manipulated by an outside force. By secretly filtering and altering human radio transmissions, this unknown guardian has, time and again, nudged the human species away from the edge of disaster. On occasion, it also sends puppet human assassins to eliminate any who might reveal its secret. So, Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Red Dawn? Not quite. Wilson is at least as interested in the emotional consequences for his characters as the political consequences of the successful alien invasion almost no one knew about. In fact, that’s very much his forte. Particularly when considered as a writer of speculative fiction, Wilson is brilliantly humane. Though he explores the vistas of the grandest philosophical and scientific questions, it’s his tight focus on the emotional element that always keeps things grounded. With his trademark marriage of the literary and the grandly speculative, Wilson is Canada’s Michael Chabon. Or perhaps better to say that Chabon is America’s Wilson. When Wilson does look at the bigger picture, he’s rather philosophical about it. If we had been conquered by alien overlords, but they were, by and large, an improvement on our existing government, should we want to rebel? Considered grimly and unflinchingly, what are the consequences of each choice? So many works have paid lip service to this quandary without really engaging with it. From Braveheart to The Matrix to 300, the decision to fight and perhaps die for freedom is, in Hollywood, a foregone conclusion. Real history, however, must have at least as many examples of a subjugated people accepting their conquerors as overthrowing them. For the small band of in-the-know humans in this book, it’s a horrific choice. Behind the secret controllers of human destiny is a Pandora’s box of war and genocide. After their decision, they’ll either be traitors to their race or carry the guilt for “burning paradise.” And they do need to choose. Wilson always resists the temptation to swoop in with a deus ex machina and tacked-on happy ending. The conclusion can only be bittersweet, but at least it will be genuine. This outing doesn’t quite manage the triumph of Wilson’s best works, 2005’s award-winning Spin, or 2001’s The Chronoliths. That doesn’t keep it from being one of the better speculative works this year. For grand philosophical ideas steamrolling damaged, everyday people, look no further. Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and