"You can't stop time. ... You can give yourself to time. Or be taken by it."
As a people immersed in a unidirectional chronology, we have often dreamed of breaking that barrier and travelling at will throughout time. With those dreams have come the inevitable questions: What happens to us if we alter our own past? If you cause events to occur which prevent your own birth, do you cease to exist? If you do, how could you have travelled into your past to prevent your birth? Thus our linear conception of time is knotted up in an impossible circular logic which many sci-fi writers have avoided by giving their time-travelling heroes a cardinal rule which Star Trek: Voyager summed up in its "Temporal Prime Directive": Though shalt not mess with the past.
Robert Charles Wilson employs no such safety net in The Chronoliths but turns the usual question of the effects of non-linear temporal incursions on its head by asking not how does time travel into the past affect the "current" timeline but how does a temporal incursion from the future affect the present.
It's 2001 and Scott Warden is a slacker living on a beach in Thailand. Trained as a software engineer, he stayed on in Thailand after his contract ended, partying and sampling illicit drugs with other American expatriates, sending his life into a downward spiral of poverty, spurred on by apathy. A cycle which is broken by an event so preposterous and yet so real that it irrevocably alters not only Scott's life but that of the entire human race: A massive pillar composed of indeterminable material "arrives" in the middle of the forest of inland Chumphon. The "chronolith" as it comes to be called, bears an inscription in two current human languages, marking the conquest of the region by an entity named only as "Kuin" on December 21, 2021.
Could this strange pillar really be a monument from the future, sent back through time to foretell the mysterious Kuin's victory? If it is from the future, is its presence proof that the future which it predicts must come to pass or does knowledge of this possible future give the inhabitants of current time the ability to avoid it? Thus Wilson expertly weaves the questions of time travel into those much older but equally familiar questions of fate and destiny. As more and more chronoliths begin to apear, first throughout Asia but later spreading to the rest of the world, and a new branch of science is birthed to study this strange phenomenon, the characters of The Chronoliths are driven to try, as Oedipus did, to avoid their foretold destiny. Can they prevent the rise of Kuin, or are the pillars' successful incursions into the past the events which assure the validity of their own predictions?
The Chronoliths is a tense read from start to finish. Full of adventure, emotion, and life throughout. Wilson gives nothing away but keeps the reader turning page after page, intimately involved in this story which is narrated in the first person, told by Scott directly to the reader. ("Really, there are only two of us here. Me. And you. Whoever you are.") Ultimately, The Chronoliths is a novel of great heart which asks us to have courage in the face of disaster and hope in the face of despair; to stand with its hero and proclaim with him:
"Today we believed in the possibility of a future."