The Chronoliths is a striking if occasionally bleak tale of time and causality that opens in the very near future. The world is going straight to hell, with social and economic crises nearly everywhere. Scott Warden is an expatriate American living in Thailand several months after a programming job has dried up. Now the hand-to-mouth lives he and his family struggle through are rocked by the sudden emergence of an enormous tower in the midst of the Thai landscape. Made of an indeterminate and inscrutable substance, it bears an inscription commemorating a military conquest by someone named Kuin...a conquest to take place 20 years in the future. For this reason the time-traveling tower earns the moniker "chronolith."
Ten years flow by as Wilson parallels Scott's tattered life with the tumultuous state of the world in the wake of further chronolith appearances, most of which are now taking place in the middle of cities and resulting in massive destruction and chaos. In addition, each of the new chronoliths is larger and more ornate than before, most of them iconographic statues of the enigmatic Kuin himself.
Scott returns to the US as his marriage dissolves, and is contacted by an old college crony who's working with the government to determine the origin and nature of the chronoliths. Scott's friend, mathematical ubergeek Sue Chopra, has an unusual theory she calls "tau transference," which will bewilder the crap out of anyone to whom terms like "Calabi-Yau geometry" mean nothing. It boils down to this: Sue theorizes that this Kuin, whoever the hell he is (and he may well be one of SF's most brilliant McGuffins), is using the chronoliths to create a sort of feedback loop wherein his great victories are guaranteed years before they occur. In other words, he's making sure his reputation precedes him, creating a worldwide climate of fear and awe so that his ultimate rise to power will be a foregone conclusion. But of course, a feedback loop works two ways, and Sue is certain that her destiny and Scott's are somehow inextricably linked to the chronoliths from the moment the first one appeared.
Wilson interweaves mathematics and metaphysics in ways that might make Rudy Rucker raise an eyebrow, but he keeps his story racing forward so as not to lose his less mathematically inclined readers. More years pass, as the threat that the chronoliths are getting ready to emerge on American soil looms larger. Sue wangles Scott's help in a massive undertaking designed to destroy the first chronolith due to arrive in the United States. If this can happen, then perhaps it can undermine Kuin's perceived inevitability and indestructibility. But none of them counts on the extremes to which a fanatical faction of Kuinists, led by none other than the deranged son of Scott's new wife, will go to protect the monuments.
On the surface, The Chronoliths is another time-paradox story, dealing with the knotty philosophical issues of can-you-change-this? and what-may-happen-if-you-do? What gives this novel its particular success is that Wilson resists the temptation to go the conventional, epic save-the-world route, instead focusing intimately on simple characters. No Bruce Willis will valiantly save the day here. The fate of everything seems to rest in the hands of a reluctant average Joe and a couple of his old friends, one an ex-dope dealer and the other obsessed with her work to the point of madness. Hard-science mavens will likely gripe that Wilson doesn't see fit to satisfy the tech-manual concerns of exactly how Kuin is able to construct 1400-foot tall statues of himself comprised of mystery-matter and zap them back 20 years in time. (Indeed, the few passages in which he takes a stab at it are among the book's weakest.) But I got the impression that Wilson had different thematic concerns. In the end, The Chronoliths is all a repudiation of fate, and a reaffirmation of the idea that human beings can control their destinies if only they work up the guts to do it. Not a bad thing to hear in troubled times, particularly when it's delivered in a story as taut and exciting as this one.