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A book review by Steven Wu
April 09, 2002
|Rating: 8 (of 10)|
A chronolith is, as one character explains it, a stone set back in time (hence "chrono" + "lith"). Scott Warden, the protagonist, is one of the first humans to observe the appearance of one of these stones, a huge monument made out of some unknown and seemingly indestructible substance that simply materializes out of thin air. But the most frightening part about the chronolith is that it bears an inscription marking it as a monument to a military victory of somebody named Kuin--20 years in the future. The appearance of chronoliths all over the world--sometimes in desolate areas, sometimes in the middle of major cities (where an appearance can flatten a square mile of buildings and kill thousands of people)--sets off a storm of controversy and mayhem as people wonder where Kuin is, when he (or she?) will appear, and what he/she will do when the conquering begins.
As I said, an awesome premise. And Wilson deals honestly with it here--the chronoliths are, indeed, monuments sent back from the future, and indeed the appearance of these chronoliths provokes a slew of time-travel and materials research in an effort to understand what Kuin is (will be?) doing.
Wilson's style is unexciting; he is no prose stylist. But for some reason his understated style works well here. This is mostly because he tells the entire story from the first-person point of view of one person: Scott Warden. Unlike in other science-fiction novels, Scott is not a super-scientist, a major political figure, or the lost heir of some ancient race. Instead, Scott is just an ordinary guy, with ordinary problems, who wants to keep out of exciting events. And, for most of the book, he does indeed stay away from the global crises that follow in the wake of the chronoliths. In part because of Wilson's understated style, Scott's family story--his estrangement from his wife, his relationship with his daughter--is quite good, taking on a poignant tone that caught me by surprise. I thought the premise would be all that the book had going for it, but in the end I found myself caring for the characters as well.
As for the premise itself, Wilson meets his burden admirably. There is indeed an explanation for the chronoliths; it is not quite what you expect, but it is also not a complete surprise. The details that comprise the explanation accumulate throughout the book, and Wilson does the reader a service by never lumping together all the facts into one clunky expository chapter. And by the end of the book the plotline becomes intricately tied in to the premise. Nothing here will make your jaw drop, but at least Wilson doesn't cop out of this book (cf. Darwinia).
Naturally, since this story deals with time travel, it's not entirely self-consistent. (If the monuments are sent back in time, then who got the idea for them in the first place? What happens to Kuin monuments just before they are constructed in the future?) In addition, the "science" of the book is a complete mess, and totally unrelated to reality. ("Tau turbulence" is as ridiculous a concept as I have ever heard.) On the other hand, Scott is supposed to be a non-scientist, and so through him Wilson manages to squirm out of plenty of scientific worries.
In the end, The Chronoliths is a fun book with a great premise and decent characterization. I recommend it.
Steven Wu's Book Reviews