September 30, 2006
Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
Telescopes of surpassing power revealed to her the unrevealed depths of the cosmos on polished mirrors of floating mercury. The dead worlds of Sirius, the half-formed worlds of Arcturus, the rich but lifeless worlds whirling around vast Antares and Betelgeuse -- these she studied, without avail.
-- Polton Cross, "Wings Across the Cosmos", 1938
"Blind Lake" is an almost fable-like contemplation about First Contact. One of the basic attributes we give to sentient beings is the need for communication, and in "Blind Lake" the universe itself conspires to provide communication between far-flung sentient beings who otherwise could only passively observe each other.
The "Blind Lake" of the title is an observation station: where scientists of various types observe another sentient race many light years away. The telescopes we use to observe other stars become powerful enough to resolve high levels of detail on a planet light years away. However, there are uncomfortable questions about the technology that makes this happen. The computers that were initially programmed to improve the signal to noise ratio from the massive telescope array in space, seem to be creating data out of thin air: data that has an impossibly higher resolution than should be possible. Some question whether the data is real: but most accept that the complexity of what they are observing has to be real, since it would be unthinkable for the software to be dreaming all this up. But there are skeptics ...
Each section of the novel begins with a quote from a Golden Age (1920s-1930s) science-fiction author (e.g. the one above by John Russell Fearn, under the pseudonym of Polton Cross) that identifies with this concern of being able to observe other sentient beings without any means of communicating with them. The only quote not from a Golden Age author is from Lucian of Samosata (from Icaromenippus c. 150 AD, often cited as being arguably the first science-fiction story) which is similarly a story that is concerned about a journey for the purpose of understanding.
In this novel, Robert Charles Wilson sets up a solution that resolves this concern -- that the universe could not be this way to only allow observation of others without a means for communication. The solution turns out to be closely linked to the mysterious data being generated by the computers at Blind Lake. Characters in the novel talk about possible reasons why this solution could exist, but no particular exegesis of the solution is provided by the author himself.
In parts of the novel, through the voice of one of the scientists at Blind Lake, RCW makes an impassioned argument: that science-fiction could be relevant to the way that scientists think about their work, that trying to understand and identify with the viewpoint of what they are studying is not always a case of unwanted anthopomorphism, but could lead to insights and discoveries otherwise closed off to the conservative viewpoint: the view that only a clinical observation of the facts should be used to inform any scientific theory. RCW hopes that a connection is possible, however tenuous, between any two groups of sentient beings, and he sets up a deus-ex-machina that enables this connection to whoever is willing to pay the price. In this novel it becomes clear that some species made the choice and have vanished, while others have largely ignored this conduit of connection and continue their lives as before. It is not clear which choice humanity will take.
%T Blind Lake %A Robert Charles Wilson %I Tor %D 2003 %G ISBN: 0-765-34160-3 (pb) %P 399 %K science-fiction
Review written: 2006/9/26Posted by anoop at September 30, 2006 10:01 AM