by Robert Charles Wilson
Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-765-30262-4
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
A jury-rigged attempt to extend the usefulness of failing deep-space telescopes has led to the accidental ability to study distant solar systems--and their planets--in detail. Such great detail, in fact, that one of the two installations using the method, Blind Lake in Minnesota, is following the daily life of a single individual on a world orbiting UMa47, a star about fifty-one lightyears from Earth.
Three science journalists--Chris Carmody, Elaine Coster, and Sebastian Vogel--arrive at Blind Lake for a few weeks of in-depth reporting. Shortly after they're inside the gate, a security lockdown begins, trapping not only the journalists and the scientists, but also all the day workers from the nearby town of Constance. The shutdo wn is complete, with no messages getting out, and nothing, including an explanation of the cause of the lockdown, getting in. It's late fall in northern Minnesota, they don't know why they're locked up, and after several weeks, the entertainment situation is so desperate that they resort collecting and pooling all the programs anyone on the base has, and instituting old-fashioned, 20th-century scheduled broadcasting--you watch what's on or you watch nothing.
Meanwhile, more serious stresses are developing. Because they don't know the reason for the lockdown, no one knows what to do to end it. When their supplies start to run low, drone military trucks arrive with new supplies, but those foolhardy enough to attempt to leave while the gate's open are killed by the smart mines that have also arrived. Blind Lake is in real trouble, and no explanation arrives with the supplies.
The senior administrator who's currently at the base is Ray Scutter, ordinarily fairly low in the hierarchy, but everyone senior to him was off at a conference when the lockdown began. Sadly, Ray Scutter is a small-minded, controlling kind of guy. The senior scientist in charge of data interpretation is Marguerite Hauser, his ex-wife. It was not a friendly divorce, and Ray barely maintains a surface appearance of civility in regard to their share custody of their eleven-year-old daughter, Tessa. He believes that he was a model husband, and that the sole cause of the divorce was Marguerite's failure to be a loyal and dutiful wife, and that this must stem from fundamental flaws in her own character.
Ray Scutter, now in charge of a scientific installation studying intelligent life on a distant world, has a history on the subject of extraterrestrial life--right up until the original Crossbank faci lity, in New Hampshire, discovered life on a planet orbiting HR8832, he was firmly on record as believing no extraterrestrial life existed, a position that had been considerably strengthened by positive confirmation that Mars did not and never had had life. Now that not only life, but intelligent life, has been proved to exist elsewhere, his fallback position is that because it is completely alien, it will never be possible to understand it, only sterilely describe it. As increasingly wild theories circulate as to the cause of the lockdown, Ray increasingly cottons to the notion that the real danger lies in the O/BEC computers that are generating the images from UMa47, and the only way to end the lockdown is to shut down the computers. His attachment to this theory is in no way lessened by the fact that Blind Lake's power supply comes from the outside; it's the only thing that has not been cut, when every other contact with the outside world except the drone supply trucks has been severed. Tension between Ray and Marguerite rises, over both scientific issues and their daughter.
And their daughter is giving them cause for some tension. Last year when they were all still at Crossbank, and Ray and Marguerite were in the process of getting a divorce, Tessa had some odd behavior problems, mostly related to an "invisible friend," whom she called the Mirror Girl, who asked questions she didn't know the answer to and said things she didn't understand. No one understood what Tessa told them about the Mirror Girl looking exactly like her but not being her, and insisted that the Mirror Girl was a product of her own mind. Now Mirror Girl is back, and Tessa's behavior is getting odder and odder.
One of the journalists, Chris Carmody, has his own problems. A few years ago, he wrote a muckraking book about a popularly beloved scientist who subsequently died in a car crash that might have been suicide. Chris is a virtual pariah in scientific circles, and hasn't been much inclined to disagree with blame heaped upon him for the man's death. Housing assignment in a Blind Lake crowded with all the day workers and visitors who got trapped by the lockdown has Chris boarding with Marguerite, and they cautiously become friends.
When the UMa47 native that the Blind Lake facility has been studying departs from its home, its work, and its city to set out on a journey across the surrounding desert, tensions ratchet even higher. When a small plane is shot down by military aircraft over Blind Lake, and the pilot's surviving personal effects include partially burned and mostly illegible pages of a magazine article carrying tantalizing hints of something major and frightening happening at Crossbank, and Tessa inexplicably gets past several layers of security undetected to reach the heart of the O/BEC facility, tension rises to a breaking point.
This is a complex, interesting, and ultimately satisfying book. I have one minor complaint about something totally peripheral to the meat of the story: Wilson's apparently-unexamined assumption that intelligent people aren't religious believers, and that if someone who is intelligent appears to be religious, it's solely for the social benefits of the moral code and the emotional benefits of being part of a religious community, not because they really believe . Holding to this assumption involves completely ignoring a lot of evidence. But that's a complaint about something that is not central to the story--in fact, it's only a paragraph or so in the last chapter, wrapping things up after the real story is over.