“Burning Paradise” by Robert Charles Wilson – A review by Valentin D. Ivanov (Bulgaria)

    Tor, 2013

    A dysfunctional family versus a big dumb object. This same story is retold in a few of the R. C. Wilson’s novels, most notably in The Chronoliths – a novel which is as much about foreshadowing the future as it is for how the family connections are tested in times of trials. The other trait that has set his works apart was the originality. Until his book Spin won a Hugo, he never wrote a sequel – every novel he wrote was based on its own idea, different from the rest of his works. I suspect, the pressure from the publishers caused the appearance of Axis and Vortex, and to me, they transmitted less of the author’s enthusiasm, than his other books.

    I had Burning Paradise in my sight for a while – because of my love for the Alternative History sub-genre. In fact, this is how I discovered Wilson – via his novel Mysterium, in which he sends a small US town in an alternative reality where a different branch of the Christianity dominates the religious landscape. It was great. Then, came Darwinia, a novel that started by replacing Europe with an alternative version of itself, devoid of humans, and with very different flora and fauna; later, the novel turned into something Dickean, casting doubt on the nature of the reality. These, and the other books of Wilson make him somewhat unique in the modern speculative fiction genre, where ideas are recycled and stories are expanded into multi-volume series.

    The beginning of Burning Paradise is somewhat “standard” – a girl wakes up. Except, it is in the middle of the night, which allows her to see a stranger, watching intently the windows of their apartment. A moment later he is run over by a car. This triggers a hasty exodus, and it is quickly revealed, that the girl is been prepared for this, in fact she has been prepared for it since many years. As the novel unfolds, a few more characters have to do the same, and in all cases the text conveys clearly the message that this is a drama – the destruction of the established live patterns, human connections, and personal habits. I can compare these scenes with the same situations in other novels, favorably for Burning Paradise. The literary skill of Wilson is apparent here, and Stephen King had all the reasons to say, that Wilson is the finest writer, working in the genre today.

    The middle-book settles into a road novel form. We are given a dose of character depth, and a glimpse in the alternative time line. The characters are not very surprising – ordinary people, some with more obsessions than others. It is worth to pay attention here to the words of the secondary characters – Wilson, always a master of the destabilization, used them to set up the story development towards the surprising revelations at the end.

    The world is a different thing. Two groups of characters travel South. One – along the great Pan-Americana highway, the road in this alternative world, that connects the Alaskan shores of North America with the Tierra del Fuego in South America. A highway like that was never build in out time line, and here the lack of major wars after the WWI – which is revealed on the first pages, so I am not really spoiling the anything here – allowed to complete some major infrastructure projects that were never done in our reality. And here the true question of the novel also becomes apparent – the humanity seems to have spend the last century in a carefully tended and guarded glasshouse. It has achieved some spectacular feats, but it has also been prevented from achieving others, that were facilitated by the various historic confrontation, like space travel, or by the simple human curiosity, like some biological and astronomical research. I think no scientific and technological advances are worth the life of even a single human being, and this would have been the answer, if the wold was simple.

    The world is not, and as the book title suggests, underneath the seeming paradise in which the characters live, there is a hot stove, burning their feat. Is the “paradise” worth accepting to live in a totally controlled society? The novel slowly reveals who is in control, and to what extent the this control reaches. There are very few surprise revelations, rather small hints dispersed though the text, and excavating them, and piecing them together is part of the game with the reader, that Wilson plays. Here he turns to his favorite theme of the family relations, and not surprisingly the characters find the answers with some personal pain.

    The climax of the novel takes place in a alien facility located in the Chilean Andes. Privately, this was one more of my reasons to read the novel. I work in a facility like this – it is not alien, but instead it is devoted to study the environment where those aliens may be – the cosmos (I am wording this very carefully, to leave no room for misunderstanding – I work at an astronomical observatory where we do astronomical research, and there are no aliens!). It turns out, the aliens of the book have good reasons to select the same location that our version of humanity choose for an observatory. The revelation is typical Wilsonian – again, with the attention to the details and emotions, rich of internalization. However, it was different than most contemporary North American novels – rather, it felt like reading a British book where the ideas are served with understatements and innuendo, instead of being spelled out directly, Hollywood-style. Perhaps, after reading most of R. C. Wilson’s novels, I have grown accustomed to his style, I like and appreciate it, but a first time reader may find this a bit challenging.

    The ending didn’t disappoint me. Some questions were left unanswered, but they were unanswered for the characters too, and in fact, having to live with the lack of those answers was an important part of the characters’ development. Burning Paradise seems to be a stand alone novel, no obvious cliffhanger was left for a sequel.

    Formally, the main character is a young girl, unusually mature for her age because of the strange upbringing, forced upon her by the work of her deceased parents. However, to me, the intriguing premise – the peaceful century that followed the WWI – is the main character of this novel; the question how it came to be is the main story drive, and the question whether it was worth – the main moral dilemma. In form, the book is a scientific procedural, showing the research into some problem of nature, and finding its solution – a form that I like to call scientific procedural.

    To summarize, Burning Paradise offers mysterious premise, drive and suspense, character depth, and rich language – all the constituents of a good novel. It is probably not on par with the best work of R. C. Wilson, but I found it a great read.

    © Valentin D. Ivanov

     Robert Charles Wilson is an American-Canadian speculative fiction writer. Studying how ordinary people face insurmountable forces of the cosmos is a frequent theme of his. His Wikipedia entry can be read here: and his home page can be seen here:

    Valentin D. Ivanov is a Bulgarian astronomer working at the ESO Headquarters (European Southern Observatory/European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere), Garching bei München, Germany.

    In the past, Valentin worked at the Paranal Observatory (Chile) of the European Southern Observatory. Among his primary research areas are the dynamics of star clusters, formation of stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets around such objects.

    Valentin Ivanov and Ray Jayawardhana are two of the pioneers of the investigation of the planemos, a special cast of exoplanets. They discovered the first double planemo Oph 162225-240515. This discovery, came just before the debate about the 2006 planet definition, and posed the problem about the distinction between planets and low-mass stars (brown dwarfs)

    Valentin D. Ivanov was born in the town of Bourgas, Bulgaria in 1967. He obtained his master degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Sofia in 1992. He earned a PhD degree at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A. in 2001. He became a fellow at the European Southern Observatory, Cerro Paranal, and since 2003 he has been a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, Paranal where he is instrument scientist for the wide-field near-infrared camera VIRCAM mounted at the VISTA_(telescope).

    In 2006, together with Kiril Dobrev, he has published a Science Fiction story collection in Bulgarian. Valentin is also writing science fiction and cooperated with the World SF Blog and SF Portal.

    Twin planemos discovery – ESO outreach

    Personal homepage :

    Crossroads, a story in the Bulgarian culture web magazine Public Republic (English):

    How I Saved the World, a story in the anthology Dialmonds in the Sky, Ed. M. Brotheron (English):

    Unstable atmospheric circulation, a story in the SF webzine Phantazm (English)

    Job Interview, a story in the e-zine for International SF Internova (English):





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