(2003) Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, US$24.95, pbk, 252pp, ISBN 0-765-30262-4
At Blind Lake, a large federal research centre, a new, barely understood, technology is being used to observe daily life on a distant planet inhabited by lobster-like beings. There is no actual contact with the aliens and the researchers can't decipher their language. All they can do is watch. Then, without warning (or reason given), a military cordon is imposed cutting off Blind Lake from the outside world. Food and other supplies are delivered by remote control which leaves the researchers puzzled but with nothing else to do other than to continue their observations...
Robert Charles Wilson has since the mid-1990s turned out SF of exceptional quality. (See reviews elsewhere of Bios and The Chronoliths.) So it is a real pleasure to report that Blind Lake keeps up the standard and that the man is fast becoming a master of new wave, hard SF.
The author has assembled a clutch of believable characters who then find themselves literally trapped within the plot (due to the robotic military cordon around the base). One of these is an author himself, so we have that device of a book within a book as this author is meant to have written a very successful pop science book laced with a dash of religious philosophy. Queue the equipment at the heart of the research establishment. Nobody understands how it really works. This is not as daft as it first might seem and is a bit like we do not understand sub-electron tunnelling which enables p-orbitals and so much of chemistry. In the case of the Blind Lake observatory, the underpinning technology was discovered almost by accident. As if this were not enough of a mystery there is the alien world being examined. Charles Wilson has again done wonders with his biology, something at which few SF authors are good but Wilson seems to do effortlessly. In part this is because he does not dwell too heavily on the alien observations but takes them matter-of-factly as his protagonists do: after all they have been studying these for some years so its routine for them and so it should be for us.
Blind Lake's plot develops slowly. In part this is because there is much groundwork to prepare. But the pace is occasionally interrupted with fast-moving key developments such as when the research facility is first cut off, or when a couple of those inside attempt to break the quarantine, and on one occasion someone from outside attempts to breach the cordon to get in (at least that is what it at first looks like). And then, of course, there are glimpses of the alien vistas being explored.
I really do not want to unpick the tapestry Wilson has woven for us. Suffice to say that the man clearly has a developed sense of wonder and the ability to develop a plot intelligently. It is a joy to be able to go along with him for the ride. In fact my only complaint is with the first edition hardback's typesetting as someone did not correctly set the text width on the first page of each chapter: it appears as a thin column of just four or five words a line. At least I assume it was a typesetting error? It was either that or the publishers have a pretentious in-house designer with too much time on his or her hands.
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