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Spin, Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, 2005, 364 pp.

Note: Spin is a novel of carefully structured revelations. Read the book first!

Spin, the latest novel from Robert Charles Wilson, is a remarkable work that has nearly every element in perfect balance: scientific speculation, page-turning pace, and extraordinarily deep characterization. These three things, in the abstract sense, seem to be at war with each other, and it's easy for one to overbalance the others. For example, writers who like their science a bit too much lapse into infodump, just as writers who have fallen in love with their characters give us too much psychological background on their pet creations. In both cases, the result is a story that has the opposite of a page-turning pace.

The reason why a balanced book doesn't come along more often is simple: it's incredibly difficult to do it! Writing as a craft takes practice, practice, and more practice, and a good writer will be constantly learning. And there's also the small matter of variations in taste. A book that does nothing for me might be the second coming for someone else. Taste itself is of course not the final arbiter of a book's worth; bestsellers might have a current grasp of the taste of the many, but not last long at all in anyone's estimation.

All that's to say that Spin is a fine novel that not only suits my tastes, it has many of the attributes that give a book lasting worth.

Tyler Dupree, twelve years old, lives with his mother in a small cottage across the lawn from the Big House. The Lawsons, who live in the Big House, have hired Mrs. Dupree to be their housekeeper, and Tyler definitely feels the class difference in the way that E.D. Lawson treats him. E.D.'s kids, the twins Jason and Diane, are only a year older than Tyler and are friendly to him. Jason is being groomed as E.D.'s business heir, while Diane is more on her own. Tyler has an impossible crush on Diane, not just in his pre-teens but also throughout the events that follow.

One night, when Tyler is still twelve, the three kids are out on the lawn and suddenly the stars go out. The moon can't be seen either. Communication with anything in orbit is cut off. People aren't too worried, because they don't notice or it doesn't affect them -- the sun comes up the next morning like usual. E.D.'s company, involved with high-altitude communication balloons, makes a killing because of the lack of contact with any orbiting satellites. And Jason becomes fascinated with the phenomenon and ends up devoting his life to the study of it. Diane's reaction is to retreat from her family into faith and religion, while Tyler... well, the case of Tyler is an odd one and I'll discuss it in a minute.

The structure of the book resolves one mystery right off the bat. Will Tyler and Diane ever get together? Spin is written as a flashback from a present in which they are approximately in their forties, and definitely are together. At first, this structure seems to let out all the air of romantic tension, especially in the time period when the two are much younger. But as they age, they grow further and further away from each other, to the point where I started disbelieving that they could ever reconcile their lives. How could any two people on such different personal trajectories ever meet again? Wilson makes us wonder.

The best part of Spin is the way that the book lets us see vast reaches of time. The human part of the story covers about thirty years, as Tyler and the twins start as teenagers and then go through most of their professional lives. This is hard enough to write properly and convincingly, but Wilson adds another layer of difficulty to his task. It turns out that (spoilers from here on) the stars went out because the Earth is surrounded by a sphere of some kind, artificially created. It becomes known as the Spin because time is going by at a vastly higher rate outside of the sphere than on the inside. What Tyler and other humans see as a normal sun in the sky is actually a faithful recreation of the effect of the sun. Panic sets in when someone does the calculations and realizes that within forty years or so the universe outside the Spin is going to end!

Our characters are pitched headlong into the future. Normally this sort of thing happens by way of a dry infodump from an omniscient narrator, or by putting the characters in a time travel story (which this book is in a way). But the main difference here is that everyone is along for the ride in a time machine that's as big as the Earth. Geologically, astronomically, biologically, all kinds of crazy and interesting processes happen on the scale of billions of years but normally no one gets to observe this first-hand. Now even people who don't believe in science see the effects of eons passing. It's one of the best conceits of the book: everyone has a front row seat for some awesome science fiction-style speculation.

And Wilson makes sure this is not an abstract thing either. Jason and his colleagues come up with a scheme (further spoilers): seed Mars with life, terraform, then send colonists, and within a few years, just a few years in-Spin-time but billions of years later outside the Spin, a civilization will have developed on the now life-friendly Mars. The Earth-sourced Martians will then have a chance to help Earth from the outside. This is exactly what happens, and people on Earth get a few snapshots of Martian civilization in development (and maybe even a visitor). Until Mars gets its own Spin and the experiment is ostensibly over.

All along the reader is wondering: this book has been spectacular, but will there be an explanation of the Spin and will it live up to what's come before? Clearly, whoever made the Spin wants the people of Earth to wait for something -- this is mentioned several times in the book and the conclusion of the story (which I will not reveal) backs that up, at least partially. So were all of the human efforts along the way just pointless wheel-spinning? Here is where some of Wilson's most ingenious plotting is revealed.

What is the Spin itself? There was a high probability that the explanation was not going to make much sense. Allow me to explain. In my review of Wilson's Blind Lake, I mentioned that the ending was a little hard to follow, a quality it shared with such books as Brin's Kiln People. That's what happens when some kind of weird transcendence happens, and our puny human minds are still stuck back in our pathetic uncomprehending meatsacks. But Spin has an "A-ha!" moment that we have been perfectly primed to understand, entirely because of a mission that happens after the creation of life on Mars. As a technical writing achievement on the part of Wilson, I'm suitably impressed -- this is a notch above most other moments of epiphany in science fiction.

There's actually one other revelation at the end of the book, somewhat out of left field, but possessing similar force of instant recognition. E.D.'s wife, Carol, has spent most of the book in an alcoholic stupor, and Tyler's mother has spent most of the book in that house across the lawn. What is the point of Carol's marriage? A tangle of relationships between the two families gets resolved neatly. When I read Spin, I didn't get the feeling that Wilson had chosen some characters according a scheme of what's necessary for the plot. These are real people, with messy, urgent, selfish, and sometimes meandering lives.

That brings me to Tyler himself. He's a bit of a cipher. He becomes a doctor but we don't get a sense that he has a burning dedication to medicine or anything like that. E.D. accuses both Tyler and Diane of being part of the Spin-paralyzed generation, i.e., numbed by a lack of future. This is certainly part of the explanation; in Tyler's case, I also see him as leading a life that only has high points in relation to Jason or Diane. As a character portrait, it's an unusual one, especially to feature as the protagonist, and it's another thing that sets Spin apart from other genre books like it.

Spin is a mature, compelling work of science fiction, filled to bursting with nifty ideas, and told from the point of view of compelling characters. I can't recommend it highly enough.


Last modified: July 6, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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