Robert Charles Wilson’s 2001 The Chronoliths is a standalone near-future science fiction novel.
Scott Warden turned a programming contract into an extended stay in Thailand, where he became yet another expatriate beach-dwelling riff-raff (much to the displeasure of his long-suffering wife Janice). Scott’s self-indulgent adventure comes to a screeching halt one day in 2021 when a mysterious towering artifact suddenly manifests in Chumphon Province. While Scott and his sketchy pal Hitch are off investigating the artifact, Scott and Janice’s daughter Kaitlin falls ill with a life-threatening disease. Detained by the authorities, Scott has no idea what is going on. By the time he is freed and discovers that Kaitlin had been ill, the crisis is past and Janice has decided she has had enough of marriage.
Life as a 21st century divorcé stretches before Scott. The artifact, and its successors, will provide ample diversion.
A name, Kuin, and the date of his great military victory in Chumphon are carved into the monolith that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. That date is twenty years in the future. Whoever Kuin is remains a mystery, but his purported military successes do not. More chronoliths appear, documenting what appears to have been a wildly successful bid to conquer all of Asia.
The effects of the revelation that they are fated to fall to this Kuin is highly disruptive. Asia begins to collapse into chaos, as Asia so often does in North American SF. As new chronoliths appear across Eurasia, instability spreads in their wake.
For Scott, the consequences of Kuin’s campaign to spam the past with pronouncements of his awesomeness are less immediate, because having been kicked out of his comfortable rut, Scott returns to America. He settles into a new and comfortable life as a corporate drone. In this he is fortunate, for America is beset by economic and environmental challenges; Scott could be far worse off.
Scott’s former teacher Professor Sulamith Chopra believes she has a handle on the theoretical basis behind Kuin’s propaganda barrage on history. Believing Scott could be useful to combat this attempt by a future warlord to spam his own past, she recruits Scott for her team. This affords Scott a front row seat on history.
Meanwhile America falls into deeper economic malaise. Kuin’s apparently foreordained triumph has had a corrosive effect on many of America’s youth. If Kuin is fated to win, and if America cannot offer hope, why not join Kuin’s movement even before Kuin begins it? This is very seductive logic for many young Americans. Including Scott’s daughter Kaitlin.
The book doesn’t tells us who Kuin might be. Rather, it suggests that this may be the wrong question to ask about the chronolith campaign.
I reviewed this book for the SFBC back in the misty past, but I then lost the review and have forgotten just what I wrote. It would have been interesting to know what younger me thought of those Americans who decided that the optimal reaction to an existential crisis was to find some way to personally profit from calamity. In light of recent events, “how do we make a buck from doomsday?” does not seem implausible.
This should be a fascinating book. It isn’t. A major reason is its narrator. Scott is, even when trying to be a better person, utterly self-centered and weirdly passive. He’s a bore, a droning, self-pitying raconteur who can make even a grandiose attempt to reshape history tedious and a time-war’s conclusion anti-climactic.
Janice and Kaitlin are there to tell us something about Scott. Their characters are thin. Much the same is true of Ashlee, Scott’s next great love, who narrowly escapes fridging and is thus a convenient plot motive.
It’s a pity the story is told from Scott’s perspective, since one can see how, if seen through other eyes, the historical process that works itself out in the 21stcentury could have been interesting. As it is, however, the book is a disappointment.