Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review of A Bridge of Years, by Robert Charles Wilson

There's a lot to be said for doing something consistently well. Robert Charles Wilson may not have developed the stylistic innovation that it takes to be a Notable Writer (which is a little unfair when you consider the innovations he takes in the background and the setting, but that's why science fiction is a ghetto), but he routinely pulls off three feats that are too rarely encountered, and he makes them look easy: he keeps his characters interesting, his ideas consistent, and best of all, he can juxtapose human nature against the vastness of a weird universe, and find the beauty in that. Gets me every time. (I should probably stop buying his books used and make sure he gets a buck.)

In the novel, these bridges of years are navigable (but not controllable) passages through time, probably engineered by some far-future beings, and utilized by other beings, historians from some less-far-future societies, for the study of "early" civilizations. These archaeologists quietly and carefully recruit contemporaries for maintenance of the passages and to supply them with present-day data. Nervous about paradox, they don't interfere much, and aren't much involved in the actual novel. The characters are from several timelines, not too distant in years. They have some different personal technology though, and Wilson also plays around with a couple fictional generations of cybernetic enhancements, from a digital watch to highly integrated (but still removable) performance-enhancing battlefield armor, to a complete menagerie of beneficial insect- and germ-like life-supporting machinery, to something hardly glimpsed, for which any remaining organic component at all is unclear. He has a lot of fun exploring the details of these augmentations (probably because it's easier to make believable), but even if my description sounds questionable, and despite what you might guess from the cover, he's not whacking off over some imaginary technical doohickies. What I really like about Robert Charles Wilson is that he's all about using these clever ideas and gadgets to tell a good story.

That story entwines major characters from four nearby timelines: a protagonist (Tom Winter) from 1989 who stumbles onto the passage; a woman (Joyce) from about thirty years before, whom he meets at the other end; a military deserter (Billy) from about 75 years ahead; and the man (Ben) from a century and a half out, who's supposed to be keeping an eye on things, but has been incapacitated by the fleeing soldier. Wilson does a good job with developing each one's credulity, and keeping their actions in line with their character, even if it chokes off a lot of bizarre what-if speculations about monkeying with causality. They have believable mixes of fear and curiosity, and you can buy the character of someone who'd want to go back and stay. Tom is at a low personal point, has had fears of an ecological future drilled into him by his wife (who left him), and a quiet cabin is only his first escape. The soldier is hiding in the past too, a monster, a scary one. His armor manipulates his biochemistry past the point of sociopathy, and if he's sort of simple and needy without it, he's also got some stubborn quirk of character that makes him resist it in the first place. It's modeled straightforwardly on a drug addiction, and it's not too noble a fight, but here's the inner struggle that's missing in Lucius Shepard's soldier from last time around, some believable inner workings that make him act the way he does, under and through the artificial stimuli. Billy, of all the characters, earns a touching moment of grace in the epilogue.

The sixties sequences were entertaining. It was fun watching a science fiction author play around with what are (by now) period archetypes of Greenwich Village bohemians. Tom's status as an outsider (more than his future knowledge) lets the author poke at these people a little, and reduce them to human scale about as fast as Tom inevitably has to do. The character didn't expect to find love in that time (didn't quite expect real people) but it happened, and the the inescabable existence of their fates--and his own fate, however unknown--depress many of the characters who think about it. The consequences of Tom and Joyce's cross-decades relationship are ultimately unsatisfying, but they still have the literary conceit of being the right ones.

Time travel stories are older than people realize: the rules are very much like the old tales when prophecy was inviolable. You get to play some of the same clever and satisfying tricks, and I've read a lot more good time travel stories than bad ones. If an author uses time machines to play with cause and effect, he's got only a few choices: (1) that the shape of time is fixed, and anything you do on your jaunt to the past has already factored into your future (call this the Bill and Ted version), or (2) the future is changeable from whatever point of view of the time traveler (Back to the Future version). In between, you can still find some working room. A good compromise, informed, sort of, by chaos theory, is that even though a lot of local effects can be changed, the basic structure of history is still circumscribed by some known pattern, and the time traveler can mess around a little without dismantling the fabric of the universe. Another compromise, taking a mighty handwave toward quantum mechanics, suggests that many possible worlds simultaneously exist, and, perhaps, the others don't even disappear when one is examined. (In fact the general shape of observed space-time may be some optimum probabilistic condition where the universe remains unraveled.) From a storytelling perspective, I don't know if it's better to take a stand on this or not: people need the illusion of time for the story to unfold, and its hard to avoid the passage of subjective time (although some fine nonlinear plots are out there). I don't think that Wilson avoided the consequences, but he didn't waste the story on them. A good, solid effort.


Cindy said...

This is a great review! I'm going to get it for my husband and my daughter - both avid Sci-Fi readers.

I often have a hard time picking one for them, because I don't often "get" sci-fi. But you're a good writer- very clear.


Keifus said...

Hi Cindy, thanks for stopping in. I felt I might have over-sold this particular book (which was solid and enjoyable, but not really a standout), but I certainly like the author, for the reasons I mentioned. It's like my literary comfort food.