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Book cover art by Jim Burns.
Review © 2004 by Thomas M. Wagner.

I admire the hell out of Robert Charles Wilson. He writes immensely entertaining nail-biters that always offer original and (boy, I hate this cliché) cutting-edge scientific concepts, sexing them up with old-school thriller storytelling, sort of like Crichton without so much Hollywood pandering. And he's never written a series novel in his life, preferring stand-alone stories that captivate readers by the strength of their ideas and his writing. You know, the way SF used to be.

While not his finest, Blind Lake is another gripping expedition into the skewed landscapes of Wilsonland. But it's one of those that might give the real hard SF mavens headaches, pursuing as it does concepts on the fringe of quantum theory that border on the esoteric and metaphysical. It is, of course, important to remember you're dealing with fiction when reading this sort of story. And, to his credit, Wilson shows an appropriate amount of good scientific disdain for the sort of quasi-spiritualist gobbledygook that seems to think it's gained scientific credibility whenever the word "quantum" pops up in conversation. On the other hand, Wilson is perfectly happy to take advantage of the kinds of "indistinguishable from magic" science that the more highly speculative areas of current theory — superstrings, complexity and all that — allow novelists to play with. But I think that's just good imaginative speculative fiction writing. Not, perhaps, the sort of thing to win over the nuts-and-bolts Analog crowd, some of whom go apoplectic when confronted with statements like "I think there are matters here that are terribly difficult for a human mind to grasp." At least Wilson knows how to keep his feet on the ground, unlike Robert Sawyer, who not only flirts with spirituality but eagerly gropes up its skirts.

The story opens some years in the future at the titular research facility, a massive fenced enclosure in the Minnesota countryside that houses one of two "Bose-Einstein Condensate" quantum supercomputers. These machines are so stupefyingly advanced that no one really knows how they work, considering they have refined and revised their own code to such a degree no living human could comprehend them in a hundred lifetimes. If that weren't enough, they have pulled off the extraordinary feat of deriving images from a deep-space telescope array that has already gone dead. These machines were peering at a distant world surrounding 47 Ursa Majoris populated by sentient life. Now, enhanced by the O/BEC computers' staggering imaging capabilities, they allow Blind Lake scientist Marguerite Hauser to hone in on a single member of this species and follow his activities day to day.

But things get scary when all of Blind Lake goes under an unexplained lockdown. Not only are the inhabitants of this little makeshift town utterly in the dark as to why they've suddenly been quarantined, but when the few folks who try to escape are brutally mowed down by robotic military drones, it's obvious it can't be anything good. With no news coming in from the outside world, and the stress of both a possibly autistic daughter and a belligerent ex-husband who happens to be Blind Lake's chief administrator, Marguerite throws herself into her studies of her alien Subject in the hopes it will shed some light on just why the siege (as everyone calls it) has taken place.

The setup here is quite similar to Wilson's earlier Mysterium: an isolated community in crisis, dealing with a shift in their very reality no one is quite prepared to comprehend. In Blind Lake, Wilson takes a more subtle approach to suspense than in that novel. He quietly introduces new plot elements (and I'll avoid summarizing any of them to give you the pleasure of discovering them yourself) that build upon the prevailing mystery in just such a way that, with a couple of exceptions, you're always kept a little off-center, never entirely sure which way the book is going to go next. The only time Wilson ever resorts to the obvious is in his characterization. One character is such a unidimensionally despicable villain that his ultimate crackup is as predictable as snow in Minnesota; you wonder why Wilson takes so long to get to it. And I rolled my eyes at another character who fit the stereotype of religious skeptic as cynical boor. There's also something terribly hackneyed about the redemption experienced by Marguerite's love interest, journalist Chris Carmody, seething with unresolved guilt over a past full of failures both real and perceived. Indeed, it's the part of the story that comes closest to the conventions of a film script (or, for that matter, the book's subtextual "spirituality"), and it's so obvious that the intended emotional epiphany isn't felt by the reader.

The ending disappoints a little. Given the steady buildup of dramatic tension all through the book, Blind Lake does lead you to anticipate a much grander grand finale than what we actually get, which is rather pat. Wilson throws in a scene in which the O/BEC resolves the Subject's plot thread through a bit of ultra high-tech virtual reality that seems too convenient (and magical). But on reflection, considering how easily a story like this could have gone right over the top (there was a point where I confess I was worried I was about to get a Contact moment), I think readers looking for the right combination of chew-on-this SFnal speculation and page-turning paperback excitement will find a pretty good yarn in Blind Lake.