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Burning Paradise, by Robert Charles Wilson

Review copy provided by Tor.

Wilson is doing something that’s very much on the border of thriller here, with short chapters and characters that do not diverge much from everyman cutouts. There are things to like here–in one small scene that made me very happy, Wilson makes it clear that he understands (and does not approve of!) how sexual harassment gets minimized and swept under the rug in a community and the effects that behavior can have on working scientists, among others.

Unfortunately, I really felt that the thriller approach–as it often does–made for a far, far less interesting exploration of the SF premise. You have an alternate twentieth century without major wars and many of the major conflicts we had, and while the characters pay lip service to the difference, there isn’t much immediately visible. I find it very hard to believe that a truncated Great War, no WWII, and apparently no Communist revolutions anywhere (??!) would result in a society that looked pretty much identical to what we have now; even if you believe it, it’s less interesting than a divergence would be. Or there was room to explore the idea that Earth had been nudged through its radio communications by an alien species–what limitations would that put on the nudges? what changes could ensue and what couldn’t? But that wasn’t the direction Wilson took it. Nor did he spend very much time on the idea of an alien species fighting its parasites with humanity as more or less an irrelevant side project.

No, instead it was very much focused on a thriller-type monster show, with travel and monster-bashing narrative taking front and center. Reasonably readable from page to page, as thrillers tend to be, but ultimately unsatisfying–and even more so because of all the potential it just abandoned in order to focus on shooting people who ooze green instead of red.

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