The Chronoliths

Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths has a brillant premise—“the sudden appearance of indestructible monuments from the future,” in Steven’s words. I got Steven to explain the basic plot at slightly greater length, but I was basically hooked when I saw that nine-word noun phrase. I mean, with that kind of a hook, the book has to be great, right?

Well, actually, it sucked. I don’t really blame Wilson; I blame myself for getting my hopes up in looking for a new twist on time travel.

See, what’s so boffo about Wilson’s idea is that unlikely combination of three key words: “indestructible,” “monuments,” and “future.” The idea that someone in the future (a warlord named Kuin) is taunting us by sending monuments of his conquests is unsettling enough: I mean, he’s clearly badass enough to have time travel technology. When you make those monuments indestructible, too, you’ve got two great themes with which to play.

The first is literary: the sense of dread involved with these enigmatic thingos is literary gold. The 2001 monoliths have that same scary inscrutibility going; so does every sci-fi novel with ancient ruins lying around from some long-dead unkown alien race. But Wilson is just such a flat writer that the dread never really materializes. Writing the novel from the point of view of a regular guy trying to ignore these “chronoliths” and go about his business was, if you ask me, a dumb move. If you, the reader, are freaked out by them, Wilson is implicitly saying, you’re one of the bad guys.

The second possibility is more plot-oriented: if some badass named Kuin is sending monuments to himself back 20 years in time, then I want to meet Kuin. Or rather, I want to see whether he really exists, how he comes to power despite people’s efforts to stop him pre-emptively, and so on and so on. I want to know what happens 20 years from when the first of these damn things appears. But Wilson cops out: his actual story ends right before the key date, and then fast-forwards several decades with a “you all know what happened next.” (And making the chronoliths physically devastating, in some cases, struck me as unnecessary. “Kuin is coming” is more uncanny, more disturbing, than Kuin flattening cities.)

Sadly, I don’t think it’s his fault. I couldn’t have done any better myself. In fact, I can’t ‘t see any narratively satisfying conclusion that start’s from Wilson’s premise and isn’t a cop out. I knew as much when I heard the premise. It’s just one of those unfortunate facts of time travel fiction.

There are, I think, two possible consistent fictional cosmologies that involve backwards time travel. In the first, there’s a single flow of events which already incorporates all time travel, ever. If the chronolith says it comes from 20 years in the future, someone will be there to send it back. Guaranteed. The second is the Back to the Future cosmology: if the “past” is altered, the future changes, too. Appropriate backwards-in-time interventions can “keep on” altering the future. Here, it’s not clear that anyone needs to send the chronolith backwards in time in “our” timestream; it might have come from some “other” future, which, ironically enough, is no longer the future, because of its own meddling with what was its past.

The problem with these cosmologies is that they have a closed universe of narrative possibility. The first has a very Fate-laden sense of one’s destiny being sealed; all you get to see is the ironic process by which the future we all know and love comes to be, the way that every puzzle piece drops into place. The second has a more existentialist flair, but the only good plots I’ve seen that use it follow the time traveller around, since he/she is the only person who gets to see “both” futures. When the time traveller is a thing, rather than a person, you just don’t get that option.

Basically, I was hoping that Wilson had come up with a third good option. The setup is so good, so strange, that I allowed myself to think that he might. Indeed, my sense that there weren’t any more possibilities was part of what made me so attracted to The Chronoliths: if he did come up with one, it would be a huge accomplishment.

But no.