Burning Paradise: Tor Books; November 2013; 317 pages; jacket art by Getty Images; jacket design by Base Art Co. Robert Charles Wilson has written many science fiction novels including Darwinia, Julian Comstock, Blind Lake, The Affinities and the Hugo Award winning Spin. He has won various awards.
Burning Paradise overcame Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper in the first round, and got by Shadow People by James Swain in the second round to reach the semifinals.
In the first 50 pages of the alternate reality book Burning Paradise, we meet 17-year-old Cassie and her younger brother Thomas who must both flee the apartment they share with their Aunt Ris because a simulacrum, a human-like robot, seems to be after them. They escape to 21-year old Leo Beck's apartment. Leo, his girlfriend Beth, Cassie and Thomas drive out of the city, hoping to get to Leo's father's home. Werner Beck is a leading member of the Correspondence Society and he'll know how to help. Cassie's parents, seven years earlier, were killed by simulacrums because they were part of the Correspondence Society (CS), a group that discovered the truth about the sims.
Meanwhile on a remote farm, former University Professor Ethan Iverson has captured a simulacrum (sim) that came to his door and wanted to talk to him to explain more about the radiosphere. But Ethan doesn't believe the sim. Soon another knock on the door brings Cassie's Aunt Ris, who is Ethan's ex-wife Narissa. Ethan has duct taped the simulacrum to a pole in the basement and told Narissa that the sim mentioned their niece's name "Cassie" and they need to figure out why it knows about her.
In the second 50 pages, Ethan and Narissa hear an alarm, letting them know more simulacrums are on the property. Ethan manages to kill two of them, but the third enters the farm house. It shoots the taped-up sim in the basement but doesn't manage to kill it. Ethan and Narissa patch up the injured sim, put their necessities and the sim in the truck and take off. The sim tells them that it is part of another group of sim entities. Ethan knows that people can't trust sims because they operate as a hive mentality, like ants in an ant hill.
Meanwhile, Beth is causing problems for Cassie's group, including making a phone call that probably blew their cover. When they reach Werner Beck's house, he's not there, but the young people find information that tells them what to do next.
The Correspondence Society discovered that the radiosphere, which is a layer of the atmosphere that reflects radio waves around the world, is actually made up of trillions of intelligent spherules.
The CS discovered that the hive-like spherules sometimes alter communications, sending fake messages back to Earth and deleting others. This interference has altered more than communications. Because the spherules have been deleting or altering war threats, Earth has had no war since Armistice Day 1914, which was 100 years ago. The CS believes these manipulations must end.
The spherules created simulacrums to roam the Earth to kill Correspondence Society members to keep the knowledge of their sentient existence and interference a secret. Ethan's sim now claims that it is a part of another group of entities that is fighting to kill the radiosphere spherules and needs the CS's help. But is this sim telling the truth or is this part of the radiosphere's plan?
The Cusanus Game: Tor, English translation September 2013; originally published in 2005 in Germany; 538 pages; translator: Ross Benjamin. Wolfgang Jeschle was a German science fiction writer who also wrote Last Day of Creation.
The Cusanus Game overpowered The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd in the first round, and won a decision over The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick in the second round to reach the semifinals.
The prologue in The Cusanus Game takes place in 1425. Caravan leader Emilio trades supplies such as spices, coffee, tobacco and cocoa with the "future" people, who then give Emilio medicine, vaccines, and solar technology to name a few. During one of the exchanges, some of the caravan young men try to enter the "future" compound but are wounded or killed. Bakhtir loses his son and feels so distraught he tries to kill a future person, who is actually a hologram, and the bullet damages the "airship." Emilio and Bakhtir barely escape certain death.
Moving forward over 500 years, Domenica is a botany student at a university in Rome. The time is 21st century after Europe has been contaminated by a nuclear world war. War continues with various factions fighting and committing murderous attacks on civilians. People are trying to survive while avoiding the ravages of fallout and uncertainty.
Mutations, both manmade and genetic from radiation damage, abound, and with those modifications come biases, prejudices and hate. Domenica's Siamese-twin friends were chillingly murdered by a Nazi-like hate-group. Domenica came across a modified dog, created with human genes used to add some intelligence and the ability to talk, but also programmed to die after a certain time period. Living in Rome after the European apocalypse is rough, violent and scary. Still, Domenica and her friends continue to survive, going to school and securing jobs.
After graduation, Domenica and some friends have applied for a position with Rinnascita della Creazione di Dio. Five graduates get the job but don't know to where they are traveling or what they will do when they get there. The five traveling to Amsterdam are three botanists, a theoretical physicist, and a specialist in medieval history. All they know is the jobs have something to do with the "Salvation of God's Creation, the salvation of the future."
The 100 pages of reading ends back with the prologue's two characters Emilio and Bakhtir, right before they bring their caravan goods to the barters from the 21st century. Bakhtir's son is still alive in this time jump.
The Battle: This semifinal match-up of Battle of the Books features the alternate history science fiction book Burning Paradise trying to best The Cusanus Game, a futuristic science fiction novel that involves nuclear disaster and time travel.
Burning Paradise offers an interesting concept of alien life forms. In this case they are tiny spherules that have a hive-like mentality and surround Earth above the atmosphere. Scientists say that life off planet will probably be totally different from what we might expect, and this fits in perfectly with that concept. By the end of the 100 pages, a new life form shows up saying that there are many alien creatures that travel from solar system to solar system with the purpose of using resources on other planets and to reproduce. I'm curious to see how the characters treat this new information. Is it real or are the aliens feeding false information to the Correspondence Society?
The Cusanus Game begins immediately with time travel, for the purpose of gleaning items from the past to supply future Earth with what they need to survive after the nuclear war. The major part of the 100 pages follows Domenica, but we jump through time with her past and present to discover her situation and the world news. The jumps became confusing at times, and the details of the war came in bits and pieces that made the reader work to figure things out. In the last 20 pages, the story does not jump around as much and stays in the present time period for longer than a few pages, which makes me enjoy the story more.
I enjoy both books' writing styles. The Cusanus Game seems to be on a higher literary level, or maybe I'm finding it a bit harder to follow since many locations are, of course, written in Italian. The story seems believable and gritty. The descriptions leave me feeling war weary and drained. I do see some hope with the characters and their new jobs that will most likely propel them into other historic times.
I (Jackie), after reading 100 pages of each book, must make a difficult decision. I'm especially interested in reading both books and will probably do so after the final Battle of the Books. The winner was only decided when I reached page 80 and farther in this book.
THE WINNER: The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke
The Cusanus Game advances to the championship round to face The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord.
To see the whole bracket, click here.