Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson. This is the new hard-SF novel from the author of The Chronoliths. Well, OK, "hard SF" should get scare quotes, because it goes all myffic at the end, but it fits my slightly idiosyncratic use of the term.
The book tells the story of a research outpost at Blind Lake, MN, dedicated to studying the output of a super-high-tech telescope array, which has discovered alien life forms on a planet orbiting a distant star. The telescope is sufficiently powerful to follow a single alien through its day-to-day life, and a whole community of scientists has sprung up to study the Subject and his society. Then, suddenly, the military quarantines Blind Lake-- nothing, no people, and no information, can go in or out. And the citizens of Blind Lake need to figure out what's going on before everything unravels.
I've threatened in the past to write a long essay about what I think magic in fantasy novels should be like, which will bore everyone it doesn't offend. There's a parallel boring essay about what "hard SF" should be like, that will probably get written at about the same time. Rule One, though, is something along the lines of "Don't say anything too specific about your future technology, lest you end up looking like an idiot." Wilson does a good job of this, as this is probably the most technical passage of the book, describing the guts of the super-telescope:
The gallery was constructed like a surgical theater without the student seating, a ring-shaped tiled hallway fitted with sealed glass windows on its inner perimeter. The windows overlooked a circularchamber forty feet deep. At the bottom of the chamber, serviced by columns of supercooled gases and bundles of light pipes and monitoring devices, were the three huge O/BEC platens. Inside each tubular platen were rank upon rank of microscopically thin gallium arsenide wafers, bathed in helium at a temperature of -451 [degrees] Fahrenheit.
Charlie was an engineer, not a physicist. He could maintain the machines that maintained the platens, but his understanding of the fundamental process at work was partial at best. A "Bose EinsteinCondensate" was a highly ordered state of matter, and the BEC's created linked electron particles called "excitons," and excitons functioned as quantum gates to form an absurdly fast and subtle computing device. Anything beyond that Reader's Digest sketch he left to the intense and socially awkward young theorists andgraduate students who cycled through Eyeball Alley as if it were a summer resort. Charlie's job was more practical: he kept it all working, kept it cool, kept the I/O smooth, fixed little problems before they became big problems.
I like this, and not just because I've done Bose-Einstein Condensation research (in a much different system). The device described is at least vaguely plausible as a quantum computer, and Wilson neatly avoids using any viewpoint characters who ought to know more, and might make glaring technical gaffes. Which works out fine, because the story isn't really about the technical details of how Blind Lake's observatory works.
The actual plot has been unfavorably compared to a Steven King novel, which has a grain of truth in it. The story concerns itself as much with the personal issues of the characters as with the earth-shaking ramifications of what happens at Blind Lake, and there are some amazing coincidences in the climax. But I don't really agree with the description, in large part because I don't generally like King all that much, and I did like this.
If I had to compare this book to something else, I'd probably call it "The Chronoliths crossed with 'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street'" The weird-science conceit and its handling are similar to the giant monuments from the future in his previous book, and the slow meltdown of the quarantined characters is reminiscent of the Twilight Zone classic.
I said at the end of my previous comments that I'd be interested to see what Wilson did next. That still holds, and I'll probably check out some more of what he's done before.
(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)