Robert Charles Wilson
Synopsis: A large alien artifact goes into orbit around the Earth, where it apparently does nothing for a year. Rumours start that the leaders of various government have been in contact with the Artifact. A coup is put into motion in the US, although the President manages to bluff the would-be junta into delaying for a few days. Doctor Matt Wheeler learns that the blood work on patients going to his hospital is very strange, so peculiar the patients should be extremely dead. Finally, the entire world falls into a deep sleep for over a day. In their sleep, they all dream that they are asked if they want to live. The ones who say yes will be given a form of immortality. About one in ten thousand say no.
The book follows two sets of people who say no, a large one from Matt’s town, including Matt, and a smaller one centred on a mad military fellow named Tyler.
After Contact, the real humans become increasingly alienated from the Contactees. Part of the process of immortality involves an unavoidable nicening of the population as they are forced to look at themselves honestly. From the outside, this can be very disturbing. Matt drops contact with his semi-girl friend and only barely manages to perceive that his daughter still has a kernel of similarity with herself pre-Contact.
To begin with, not much changes. There’s a massive effort to keep people in famine areas alive long enough to become immortal. The capitalist system gradually breaks down. The immortality involves having one’s mind copied into a supercomputer-like machine and eventually letting the original body wither away, but this process is slow. The Contactees are kind enough to keep vital services going but as people disappear, the services requiring hands-on service become harder to come by.
Tyler [who was the fellow assigned to murder the President during the coup] is fairly upset at the changes. He’s mad as a March hare, although he conceals that most of the time. After confronting the President, he sets off looking for other non-immortals who will help him resist the aliens. He and a recruit spent some time blowing up the Helpers, alien machines, until they have a falling out and Tyler tries to kill the recruit. Badly wounded, the recruit manages to get a second chance at immortality.
On the west coast, side-effects from alien and Contactee activity is making the weather much worse. After the town is flattened by a hurricane, Matt and his townsmen realise they have to relocate to a safer place. They meet Tyler, who is politically adept enough to take the position of leader away from Matt.
At first, Tyler is a reasonable leader, but his instability become more and more apparent. He eventually realises that his murder attempt of the recruit may become known if the group gets to the town they are heading for, so he destroys their radio and claims the last message through was to stay put.
Not too far away, the formerly human Contactees are building a ship many miles across. Its launch will have locally catastrophic effects and Tyler is keeping the group too close to ground zero.
Matters come to a head when one member of the group, William, who is actually the former President in a resculpted body, tries to help a Contactee survive her own resculpting to a flying form. Tyler finds out and kills Williams’s body. The Contactee escapes. Events spiral out of control, with Joey, a jealous teenager, trying to kill Tyler, unsuccessfully, ending in Joey’s death and Beth, Joey’s sometime girlfriend, badly wounded. Matt and Kindle, an old hermit, manage to rescue Beth and kill Tyler but by then the Contactee spaceship is launching. Most of the surviving townsfolk are killed, with only Matt, Kindle and Beth surviving.
Beth is so badly wounded she is dying. Matt, badly burned himself, manages to find a Helper and prevails on it to save Beth. It does and heal Matt as well, infesting both of them with the mechanisms for immortality as a side-effect. When they finally age and die, they will have a second chance. Kindle goes his own way, still fully human and Matt and Beth head off to the large human town.
Half of humanity sticks around to watch over the Earth. The other half heads out to the stars.
Usual ‘does not do justice warning’
Robert Charles Wilson is one of the best writers in SF today. Bridge of Years is probably my favourite of his books but this one is pretty good as well. The characters are reasonably well drawn, the action proceeds nicely while leaving room for deeper matters and the deeper matters are not discussed in such a contrived way that I throw the book to the ground and stamp on it.
On the other hand, Tyler is an iteration of a character I have seen before in Wilson’s books. There must be some non-psychotic military folks out in the world, but you wouldn’t know it if all you read were Wilson’s books. Tyler has good reason to be mad, though, and it isn’t like he put on a uniform and then started gnawing on the family dog.
Some of the large physical events in the book appeared to me to have happened to force the plot in certain directions. The aliens cause vast storms because they are in a hurry to fix side effects of humanity’s tenure on Earth. Why are immortals in a hurry? The townsfolk manage to wander into the blast zone of the ex-human spaceship. The aliens have millions of Helpers zipping around the country being helpful in their aloof way. Why didn’t they put a few hundred thousand Helpers to steer people around the danger zone, especially given that they know where the town Matt started in was and where he and his group were heading?
There’s an interesting question of whether or not the Post- Contact mock-humans are still human in any meaningful way. The aliens are acting out of fear that humanity on its own might have gained the technical ability to wipe them out without changing its nature enough to refrain from committing vast actions of genocide. That the faux- humans are descended from human people is clear. It is also clear that the process of making them immortal not only changed them dramatically, not just from flesh to stored bits but also in terms of personality. A real human like Matt has no problem seeing the changes and even Contactees trying to hide their fundamentally inhuman nature behave oddly enough that the disguise is not successful for long. Have Contactees been given authentic immortality or just tricked into letting themselves be peacefully exterminated and replaced by unconvincing replicas? One might argue either way, especially if one were the meat puppet of a vast inhuman agency whose purpose was the crippling of human history. I myself incline towards the possibility that the post-Contactees are different enough in an abrupt enough manner that continuity has been broken and the Contactees are just flawed copies of dead people. Wilson does a good job of making Tyler an understandable character, so he is well able to present the Contactee case in a sympathetic manner.
Would I accept the offer? It’d depend on how sick I was but unless I were actually dying, I expect I would not be desperate enough to accept the transformation.
People-in-boxes comes up later in Wilson’s career, although the faux-human simulations are much better off than in the other book, being aware of the real world and not kept in a static condition.
I highly recommend The Harvest. It’s one of the better books in a genre which also includes On the Beach and Childhood’s End.