Burning Paradise

Burning Paradise, by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson, the author of the awesome Blind Lake, Spin trilogy, and Darwinia, is one of my favorite science fiction writers. More than any other living author, he is able to conjure breathtaking stories of real people in a vast and strange universe. Of course I couldn’t miss his last novel, Burning Paradise, published last week.

The Earth is surrounded by the hypercolony, a living cloud of microscopic entities. This form of life, common in the universe, establishes symbiotic, parasitic relations with host civilizations, and uses the resources of the host to reproduce by launching seeds to nearby stars.

The hosts, in this case us, benefit from the symbiotic arrangement: since the dawn of radio, the hypercolony controls and subtly tweaks all electronic communications to promote world peace and ensure the necessary conditions for the development of the advanced technology needed to send probes to the stars. Burning Paradise is set in an alternate history, and the 20th century has been much more peaceful than ours thanks to the interference of the alien cloud.

The world doesn’t know: the existence of the hypercolony is known only by members of the Correspondence Society, so called because they avoid all forms of electronic communications, which would be intercepted by the cloud, and communicate only face to face or via snail mail. The scientists who independently discover the truth are brought into the Society. But the cloud is able to fabricate agents, “sims,” drones indistinguishable from persons, to hunt and kill Society members.

The sims look and talk like persons, but there is a way to spot them: below a surface layer of human skin and flesh, they are made of a green substance that is part of the cloud. To uncover sims you must hurt them deep, which gives Wilson the opportunity to create some unforgettable horror scenes.

Young Cassie and her little brother Thomas, their aunt Ris, her ex-husband Ethan, an entomologist who studies the cloud as a parasite social insects hive, and angry young Beth and Leo, all are Society members whose loved ones were killed by the cloud’s sims. After one more attack, they are on the run to reach Leo’s father Werner, a fanatic Society leader who wants to fight and kill the hypercolony. They are joined by Eugene, a worker who was the first to discover a huge facility built by the hypercolony in the Atacama desert in Chile.

I cannot say more about the plot without spoilers — read the book, and you will find many surprising turns.

I don’t think Burning Paradise is Wilson’s best book, but Wilson’s second best is still exceptionally good science fiction, and I warmly recommend this book. It is very difficult to write something as good as Blind Lake, Spin trilogy, or Darwinia, but Wilson is a great writer and, after enjoying Burning Paradise, I look forward to reading his next masterpiece.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Burning Paradise is the totally alien intelligence of the hypercolony, reminiscent of the living ocean in Solaris and the microbot swarm intelligence in The Invincible (both by Stanisław Lem). Evidently, the hypercolony is much more powerful and intelligent than us, but perhaps there is nobody home:

“[The hypercolony] was a sort of nest or hive that had enveloped the entire planet. Its smallest component parts were the spherules of rock and organic matter Ethan had learned to cultivate. As small as they were, the spherules were capable of generating and receiving impulses over a broad band of radio frequencies. They were also capable, Ethan said, of performing enormously elaborate calculations… What made the hypercolony remarkable was its collective power to manipulate electronic signals and mimic human beings. Mindless as it was, it could somehow generate a sim like Winston Bayliss and pass it off as human. But when Bayliss said the word “I,” it was a noise that meant nothing. There was no “I” inside the monster. There was no one home. There was only the operation of a relentless, empty arithmetic.”

This is a typical Wilson theme, used also in Darwinia and Spin. But I find it difficult to imagine a complex intelligence without “I.” I think a really intelligent entity would have, as a necessary byproduct of the same computational complexity that makes it able to think intelligently, all sorts of subjective experiences (sentience) including emotions and feelings.

Emotions and feelings are not useless decorative fluff, but on the contrary they are an integral part of human cognition, and I suspect that “some kind of” sentience, emotions, and feelings, must be an integral part of any intelligence, even one as alien as the hypercolony. Of course, the subjective experiences, emotions and feelings of alien intelligences may be quite different from ours. It is in this sense that I interpret Wilson’s (and Lem’s) vast but non-sentient intelligences: they are sentient in their own way, but their “I” is very different from our “I.”