What if Great War never hap­pened?

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Joel Boyce

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

teacher.

Burn­ing Par­adise

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