Novel: Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

When my to-read shelf starts getting too full, Robert Charles Wilson is one of my go-to writers. His clean prose and pure storytelling ability can always be counted on for a fast and satisfying read. Burning Paradise (2013) lives up to that reputation, perhaps less gripping than some of his other recent works, but still an effortless read with an intriguing moral dilemma at its core.

The novel is set in an alternate history wherein World War I, herein referred to simply as “the Great War,” was the last major global conflict on Earth. In its wake, there have been one hundred years of relative peace, its occasional border skirmish or political disagreement smoothed over quickly by international cooperation guided by the League of Nations. It’s something of a utopia…except for a secret network of scientists known as the “Correspondence Society,” who have discerned a chilling truth. A strange alien entity known as the hypercolony has enfolded the Earth, populating its radiosphere and subtly manipulating world communications in a manner that has mitigated wider human conflict. The hypercolony has made the world a better place, but it’s also determined to prevent humanity from learning about it, which leads them to send human simulacra to Earth to massacre the Society’s members. The story follows the innocent daughter of one Society member, Cassie, and her uncle Ethan, one of its scientists. Both are vulnerable targets of the hypercolony, which embroils them reluctantly in a secret war against the aliens: a campaign that might save their lives, but not without drastic consequences on the wider world.

Wilson eases confidently into this narrative and builds the world with the same vigor and sense of wonder that characterizes his best work. Cassie and Ethan make for welcoming, if generic, protagonists, and the novel’s “at what price, peace” message provides an engaging ethical dilemma for them. Unfortunately, the narrative loses momentum in the latter stages; once the novel’s world-building groundwork has been laid, the rest plays out fairly unsurprisingly, and the ending sputters. But overall, I found it an entertaining read with a thought-provoking core idea.

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