The Chronoliths: Monoliths from the future

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Scott Warden, known to most as “Scotty,” kept his wife and daughter, Janice and Kaitlin, in Thailand after the coding contracts dried up. Scotty now spends most of his time aimlessly “just living” in the ex-pat beach culture. Scotty’s broke, but at least he doesn’t deal drugs like his buddy, Hitch Paley. Drug dealer he might be, but Scotty figures that Hitch is basically a good guy, deep down.

It’s Hitch that takes Scotty along the back roads to see the first Chronolith.

The Chronolith is impressive and mysterious. Where did it come from? It marks the first victory of Kuin  — except that it’s dated twenty years in the future. When Scotty returns from seeing the first Chronolith, he discovers that his daughter got sick and had to be hospitalized. Janice tried to contact Scotty but couldn’t find him. It’s the last straw for her, and she returns to her home in Minneapolis. Scotty decides to grow up and he returns to America.

Though America remains focused on other problems, the Chronoliths keep appearing across Asia, documenting Kuin’s future conquests. Sometimes they appear harmlessly in the countryside but sometimes they appear with catastrophic impact in cities. Whether he knows it or not, Scott appears to be tied to the Chronoliths, and the physicist Sue Chopra soon recruits him to help her study the Kuin stones.

Looking back, it’s clear that the arrival and spread of the Chronoliths became the defining event of the 21st century. Because they’re arriving in Asia, they send Asia’s economy and governments into chaos, which causes America’s economy to shrink. The American southwest begins to run out of water. As Kuin’s monuments spread, the government begins to spend all of its money preparing for war. Times are tough and people are paranoid.

However, the next generation begins to declare its support for Kuin. They wear K+ t-shirts and even go on pilgrimages to see Kuin’s Chronoliths. One cop explains the new generation like so:

they have no future, and they know it. The thing is, it’s true. The economy sucks, that’s no secret. And what else do we have to offer them? Everything they hear about the future is all Kuin, Kuin, Kuin.

What’s disturbing is that the more people prepare for Kuin, the stronger he seems to become. Kuin’s Chronoliths declare his strength, which creates his strength. The fear that people feel and act upon is creating an inescapable, terrifying future.

These self-fulfilling prophecies and self-reinforcing habits can be found throughout The Chronoliths, which should be read as a cool science fiction novel but also to consider the ways in which our focus determines our reality. The Chronoliths and what they do seem paradoxical, even mad, and Scott first witnessed this dynamic in his schizophrenic mother, who learned to see the fear in her son’s eyes, which fed her paranoia that he was scared of her. Sue Chopra, who is determined to defeat the Chronoliths, lives a lonely life because she works so hard at figuring them out. As one of her friends explains, “the harder she worked, the more important her work became.” Much of The Chronoliths is depressing because it seems that we are locked into forces that are beyond our ability to alter. However, it’s reassuring to watch Scotty transform himself from a beach slacker into Scott, a responsible father.

There is much to be said for Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths. It has a cool “big science fiction” idea, pace, a sympathetic cast of characters, and a short page count. Wilson has produced the sort of science fiction novel that can pass as a thriller. While Michael Crichton fans should enjoy this novel, I’m not sure that it could ever be transformed into a film (but who cares?).

Although I enjoyed reading The Chronoliths, I was most struck by the timing of its publication. Wilson first published The Chronoliths in August of 2001, and it was certainly fascinating, given what would happen in New York City a month later, to read a novel about how towering monuments and destruction brought about by mysterious and terrifying forces  — and how these events might shape the 21st century. The Chronoliths is compelling in part because it eerily proceeds alongside our own history, inviting readers to consider how we’ve responded to the challenges we face and the future our decisions are creating. Recommended.

Published in 2001. Scott Warden is a man haunted by the past–and soon to be haunted by the future. In early-twenty-first-century Thailand, Scott is an expatriate slacker. Then, one day, he inadvertently witnesses an impossible event: the violent appearance of a 200-foot stone pillar in the forested interior. Its arrival collapses trees for a quarter mile around its base, freezing ice out of the air and emitting a burst of ionizing radiation. It appears to be composed of an exotic form of matter. And the inscription chiseled into it commemorates a military victory–sixteen years in the future. Shortly afterwards, another, larger pillar arrives in the center of Bangkok–obliterating the city and killing thousands. Over the next several years, human society is transformed by these mysterious arrivals from, seemingly, our own near future. Who is the warlord “Kuin” whose victories they note? Scott wants only to rebuild his life. But some strange loop of causality keeps drawing him in, to the central mystery and a final battle with the future. The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson is a 2002 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel and the winner of the 2002 John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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2 comments

  1. It does seem like a good example of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” story.

  2. Sounds like a pretty cool SF concept. I didn’t realize this was published back in 2001. I’m keen to read Spin first, but I remember seeing a bunch of his books coming out in attractive Bantam Spectra paperback editions back in the day.

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