Mysterium by Robert Charles Wilson (1994)

Spoiler Alert! Yes, this is a critical review of a novel by an academic. I do give away and discuss the ending, to an extent. I have already received one complaint (see below). Don’t be a victim. If you care about such things, come back and read what I have to say after you’ve finished the novel.

Yesterday I finished reading the novel Mysterium by well-regarded Sci-Fi author Robert Charles Wilson (Bantam, 1994). This book was the winner of the prestigious Philip K. Dick award in 1994. In fact, that’s why I read it. I’ve got a little plan to read a bunch of novels off of that list. I’m a science fiction fan, and it seems like a good way to discover great new authors and keep up with the highlights of the genre.

The problem is this: if Mysterium is any guide, some of my reading could be pretty disappointing. Mysterium starts out well, but whimpers and finally limps into a very unsatisfying conclusion. Like many novels and films in the genre, the plot is built around a MacGuffin, in this case, a mysterious undefined substance which is discovered during an archaeological dig. Ultimately, the object causes an entire Michigan town to be ripped out of this world and deposited in the same location but in a parallel earth. In the universe of the parallel earth, history diverged from the path of our world around the time of early apostolic Christianity, resulting in a world where Roman paganism never really died out and gnosticism became the dominant form of Christianity.

The results of this somewhat fascinating premise are then unfolded in a straightforward third-person narrative, utilizing a classic technique of shifting perspectives between characters chapter to chapter. The prose is clipped, precise, and workmanlike. Highly functional for the purpose to which it is pressed. Occasionally Wilson’s forays into poetic description are successful. Mostly they seem overwrought.

The trouble may be that the premise itself is too fantastic. Furthermore, a few of of the elaborations of the premise utterly fail to cohere with the narrative. The structure and outcome of the novel leaves the reader feeling that Wilson may have simply abandoned the loose ends, hoping that readers will be satisfied with their encounter with the “mystery” of it all.  In the end of the book, he literally (that is, literarily) blows them all away with a nuclear explosion, wiping the slate almost clean. The author appears to think that you will regard his apocalyptic finale as a new beginning and an opening to imagining the future of his fictional world. I see it rather as a narrative dead end, an authorial shortcut to getting out of an impossible storyline.

Like many authors before him, Wilson attempts to meld cosmology and metaphysics.  He does this by sketching a nexus between actual and possible worlds.  He endows this nexus with mysterious and patently magical properties — disembodied ghost-like beings of light, distortions of time and space, the apotheoses of two different characters, and the ad-hoc creation of new worlds — none of which are ever explained or given any other dressing besides a hackneyed language drawn from a shallow study of gnosticism.

Too bad. Parts of the novel are truly impressive. Many of the visual scenes the author constructs are stunning.  In particular, I was fascinated through all the early chapters in which the residents of Two Rivers, MI, became aware of their new situation. The chapters include the repeated image of a finished, paved road terminating abruptly, in a molecularly precise line, at an old growth forest. This image, for me, forms the heart of the book. It is a powerful illustration of the confrontation between the world as it is, and the world as it might have been. The image hints at something fascinating about human existence: our world is a construction of arbitrary forms. We inhabit an effectively random configuration of elements: in our religion, our “histories,” and our communities.

As Pascal noted, “Cleopatra’s nose: had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

Another aspect of the novel, however, counteracts this principle. The political and religious satire which animates the entire plot points to those elements of human nature which are consistent and apparently trans-historical, or even trans-universal. In particular, Wilson has something to say about the dynamics of human power. Even our curiosity and desire to understand each other and the world is tainted by our aggressive tendencies. We possess a deep streak of hostility towards the other, and an underlying impulse towards violence in defense of whatever arbitrary system has been defined as our “norm.” These tendencies emerge in an especially brutal and frightening way when too much power is institutionalized in church and state.

While these ideas are fascinating, ultimately, Wilson’s satire is flat and predictable. In short, I don’t feel he contributed to my understanding of the human condition. I nodded along at his portrayal of the religious and civil authorities of the possible world he had drawn, but I wasn’t provoked to a new insight by it. It’s a caricature.

Wilson asks a question that has often pre-occupied historians of antiquity, “what if, in Christian history, gnosticism had triumphed instead of proto-orthodoxy?” (For example, you can see the question asked and in fact connected to Cleopatra’s nose in the opening pages of Arnaldo Momigliano’s healthy little historiographical exercise Alien Wisdom). He answers the question with a highly plausible, if cynical, hypothesis: the gnostic mysterium would have been just as worldly, hierarchical, and blind as the catholic magisterium.

That’s probably true but in the end, I didn’t really get much of a thrill out of the thought experiment.

  4 comments for “Mysterium by Robert Charles Wilson (1994)

  1. Alexander
    September 3, 2009 at 10:59 am

    MCB, Lovely, tight review, lurking suspicion that the PK Dick laurels were bestowed on the strength of the premise–Michigan locals with near-recent sociotechnology, discover radical alterity at the new town limits–which is, after all, a marvel. What I want to know is, are you as skeptical of the engines of human power systems as Wilson? Can a ‘mysterium’ ever serve a public good and not some cabals will to power?

  2. Gianni
    October 10, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks for spoiling the story. A “Spoiler Alert” would have been nice. I’v only got a few chapters to go. Oh well…

  3. Matt
    October 11, 2011 at 5:54 am

    Sorry about that Gianni. I’ve added the requested Spoiler Alert, above.

  4. Gianni
    October 13, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Hahaha Love it! Nice work!

what do you think?

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