Minor spoilers below.
The Chronoliths takes the same broad theme of Wilson’s later novel Spin (mysterious giant objects appear around the globe) and uses it to frame a bleak look at a near-future where environmental and economic collapse have left the world vulnerable to military conquest on a level not seen since World War II. The twist is that the conquest is set to happen twenty years in the future and is foretold by the arrival of chronoliths, giant towers of indestructible stone and ice that commemorate the victories of someone or something only identified as Kuin.
With chronoliths spreading from Asia to South America and beyond, and pro and anti-Kuin forces forming, the story follows software developer Scott Warden as he witnesses the arrival of the first chronolith in Thailand and then becomes entangled in what Warden’s former teacher and scientist Sue Chopra calls “tau turbulence” in the quest to stop both the chronoliths and Kuin.
Written in 2001 and predating the 9/11 attacks, The Chronoliths is informed by a present that didn’t anticipate the arrival of the smartphone (it predates the launch of the iPhone by six years) and as such, even though it depicts a mid-21st century where video phones and terminals are commonplace, it feels ever-so-slightly out of date. This is not a real criticism, just a reflection on the likelihood of science fiction that chronicles near-future events not quite hitting the mark. Predicting the future is tricky business, which is ironically (and as Chopra would point out, not coincidentally) what the story is about. Reading the novel when it was published in 2001, these incongruities are non-existent. In 2016 you just have to keep the story in context of when it was written.
That said, the story moves along briskly and Wilson quickly ensnares Morgan, his friends and family into the future of the chronoliths, making Morgan’s actions and decisions both momentous and personal. He may not necessarily want to save the world, taking a rather jaundiced view of it, but he does want to save the people he loves. As more chronoliths appear and Kuin’s victory seems more and more inevitable, the tone becomes increasingly one of despair and hopelessness. Told from the first person perspective, the character of Scott Morgan deliberately feeds into this, framing the tale as one in which many terrible things happen. And they do!
I won’t spoil the ending but Wilson does kind of pull a rabbit out of a hat and it works. As with most stories that have a time travel element it’s best if you don’t try to pull the logic apart. In the case of The Chronoliths, Wilson makes that easy with a style that effortlessly moves the plot along.