Blind Lake is a government facility in Minnesota, where science is being rewritten. Borderline autistic child Tess lives in Blind Lake, time-shared between her mother Marguerite and her (divorced) father Ray, both scientists working at Blind Lake. Three journalists arrive at Blind Lake for a story: Chris, coming from a bad moment, tries to recover his passion for science and journalism; veteran science writer Elaine; and Sebastian, the author of a best-selling quantum mysticism book. A few hours after they arrive, the facility is locked down. Nobody comes in, nobody can go out, and communications are cut.
Nobody knows why the lockdown, and those who try to escape are mercilessly killed by drones. Perhaps something very dangerous happened at Crossbank, another lab with the same weird quantum technologies? Blind Lake staff, contractors and visitors who were in Blind Lake on the day of the lockdown, and the three journalists, will be confined for several months without any contact with the external world. Wilson follows the human stories and the inevitable “lockdown romances,” and develops the main characters, all nice persons except Ray.
But two main characters are not human.
The Subject is an alien on UMa47/E, a planet 50 light years away, in an alien city sometimes called “Lobsterville” by the press because the aliens look somewhat like lobsters (actually, I imagine them more like large red bipedal rhinos with an extra set of eating arms). The scientists at Blind Lake observe the alien world, focusing on The Subject with a virtual camera that follows him all the time like a Second Life camera following an avatar. We see fascinating scenes of life in the alien city, until one day The Subject leaves the city and goes on a mysterious quest in the wilderness.
But the observation technology used at Blind Lake and Crossbank is based on weird quantum computers that nobody understands. The quantum computers produce TV-like images of the surface of UMa47/E, but nobody knows how and why the technology works. Chief engineer Charlie explains to Chris:
Then the NASA interferometer had begun to lose signal strength, and the newly designed O/BEC devices, quantum computers running adaptive neural nets in an open-ended organic architecture, were enlisted to strain the final dregs of signal from noise. They had done more than that, of course. Out of their increasingly deep and recursive Fourier analysis they had somehow derived an optical image even after the interferometers themselves ceased to function. The analytic device had replaced the telescope it was meant to augment.
Mirror Girl is first introduced as Tessa’s imaginary friend. She stares back at Tess from mirrors and makes her presence known to Tess at odd moments, which worries Tess and her parents. But the reader soon understands that she is much more real, and somehow related to the mysterious quantum computers.
Wilson keeps building momentum until the end, both human and scientific. When the thinking quantum computers, following The Subject, find a mysterious fractal structure on UMa47/E, they build a similar structure at Blind Lake. These huge fractal machines are advanced quantum computational nodes of a higher order sentience that spans the stars.
Thinking creatures make machines, Mirror Girl said, and their machines grow more complex, and eventually they build machines that think and do more than think: machines that invest their complexity into the structure of potential quantum states. Cultures of thinking organisms generate these nodes of profoundly dense complexity in the same way massive stars collapse into singularities.
Blind Lake is science fiction at its best, with real people here on Earth, alien civilizations, magic science, and awesome cosmic visions. If you want to read one of Robert Charles Wilson’s book I recommend this one — but then you will be hooked and read them all.