A group of three very different journalists are sent by a scientific journal to write about the research being done at the sites of the O/BECs, two self-programming computers. With their aid scientists have been able to observe a couple of alien planets. Nobody understands the technology that allows the vision, or are able to replicate it – somehow the O/BECs just do it. The facility at Crossbank monitors a biologically viable but unpopulated planet orbiting HR8832, a distant star, while the installation at Blind Lake has focused on an individual on UMa47/E, a planet circling a star in a different galaxy.
The individual being studied, Subject, is a tall, red creature who lives a very routinised life, but its every movement is analysed and described nonetheless. One of the team observing Subject is a divorced mother, Marguerite Hauser (or, according to the back blurb, "Nerissa Iverson") – despite her learned scientific objectivity she finds it difficult to refrain, at least in her head, from attributing motivation to Subject’s actions. Marguerite shares custody of her eleven-year-old daughter Tess with her ex-husband, Ray Scutter, a man who has not taken Marguerite’s defection from him well. Tess is not a normal child – she loses time pondering things, and has been haunted by Mirror Girl, who she sees in any reflective surface. Ray is convinced that this is somehow due to Marguerite, and as his world becomes more frightening this belief becomes more overwhelming.
And his world does become a more frightening place as, without warning, the compound at Blind Lake is locked down (or, as Ray terms it, quarantined) – while communication is intact within the camp, there’s no communication with the outside world. As a series of people try to leave they discover the perimeter is surrounded by miniature killing drones; unmanned vans bring food, but no information. As the isolation stretches into weeks, the population becomes more divided and afraid. And at the same time Subject, who has followed a predictable and barely-varying routine for months, leaves his city for an unprecedented and prolonged trek through the desert.
This is an interesting and absorbing novel that explores a number of themes I found relevant and interesting. The speculative fiction aspect is less the focus than a framework within which to explore ideas about what constitutes normal development and behaviour; dysfunctional family dynamics; the impact of stress on relaxing social norms; the dichotomy of relating to and remaining distant from research subjects in the social sciences; the role of narrative, and of narration in our framing of the world; how the events of our childhoods echo throughout our lives, among many others. Although I found the mysteries of the novel (why has Blind Lake been locked down? Did something happen at Crossbank? Is Ray right that they’re being quarantined, and if so why? Why has Subject’s behaviour so radically changed? Why is Tess so unusual, and does she possess unusual insight, or a mental problem?) interesting, they definitely played a secondary role for me.
I held off reading Blind Lake because of the criticism I read online (and which I referenced when reviewing another Wilson novel, Spin), that they were too similar. Having read the second novel, and just now reread the criticism, I can see where the reader was coming from, but disagree that this is the same novel writ twice. there are certainly similarities, but the style, essential plot points, and the narrative were quite different. That said, I take on board the advice which I think is generally good in every genre: proceed cautiously when reading the same author more than once in close proximity. Disappointment quite often follows suit. - Alex