Blind Lake

Reviewed: April 23, 2004
By: Robert Charles Wilson
Publisher: TOR Books
399 pages, $34.95

There are two Canadian books on the nomination list for the 2004 Hugo Award. I reviewed of them, Robert J. Sawyerís Humans, last fall. This is the other one. I owe it to the discussion on the Sawyer chat site that I decided to crack the cover on Blind Lake when it arrived in my mail box. Wilson was highly recommended by a number of the members on that site as well as RJS himself.

To complete the connection, this week brought news of an Alberta research project dedicated to exploring possible connections between quantum physics and computing. Timely, indeed, since that is the bit of scientific speculation which underpins this novel.

Blind Lake is a research facility in northern Minnesota. Scientists there are studying extraterrestrial life without ever having to leave the planet. They donít know quite how what theyíre doing works. Somehow, after the failure of an array of long distance exploration probes, images started coming through to two observatories on Earth, one at a place called Crossbank, the other at Blind Lake.

The images are from two different planets. At Crossbank the scientists are viewing what appears to be a planet with no higher life forms. Blind Lake is a bit more exciting. It has lobsters.

At least, thatís what the media has dubbed them. These are vaguely crustacean-like sentient organisms that walk upright, use tools, live in cities, follow daily routines and live lives that the observers back on earth are wracking their brains trying to make sense of. The images from the Blind Lake Computational Array, commonly known as Eyeball Alley, are baffling in the extreme, but not nearly as baffling as the events which begin shortly after the book opens.

We follow some insiders and some outsiders. Thereís a trio of visiting writers, each with a somewhat different agenda, who are being allowed to look at the inner workings of both observatories. Our main focus here is on Chris Carmody, whose last book had been such a successful account of a life and work that its main subject had apparently committed suicide. Chris isnít sure that the world needs another book from him on any subject.

The insiders are the members of the dysfunctional Hauser family. We begin with Tessa, who seems to be an 11 year old with a learning problem, or perhaps something more serious. Her mother, Marguerite, is an anthropologist at Blind Lake who has radical ideas about the observations they are making of their central subject. Her father, Raymond Scutter, is an uptight administrative type who is liked by no one and is used to manipulating situations so that he wins.

Nobody wins anything on the day that the armed forces lock down Blind Lake solid and tight and send in supplies to withstand a long siege. No one can leave, and the few who try serve as a deadly object lesson to everyone else. Something has gone mysteriously wrong at Crossbank, something that seem to be connected to the work they are doing, or the equipment they are doing it with. The government fears the problem has spread, or will spread to Blind Lake, and it is taking no chances.

They are half right.

Another part of the story is, of course, is about what happens to a town full of people trapped together in a hothouse situation with no options, with a tight focus on a family which already has problems.

Still another section is about Margueriteís attempts to understand an almost totally alien life form, which has been designated simply, the Subject. In an attempt to avoid ascribing human motivations to a non-human species, the observers on the project have been cautioned simply to observe behavior, and not to attempt to explain it. In the end, she abandons this in an effort to understand more than her discipline will allow her. She has to apply this technique not only to her Subject, but also to the strangeness that is going on all around her and to the mysterious talent possessed by Tessa.

The novel covers all these things quite well. There are enough everyday problems for those who donít like SF, and enough elements of the puzzle story for those who do. Iím looking forward to seeing more from this writer, and Iím definitely going to look into his backlist. There seem to be four earlier novels and a short story collection to explore.