Spin, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2005, 364 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30938-6

What’s deceptive in Robert Charles Wilson’s work in that he makes it seem so simple. While other science-fiction writers really want you to sit down and study their books as if they were flight operation manuals, Wilson does the work for you, puts ordinary characters in the middle of big ideas, and then shows you what happens to them. This, of course, is how all SF should be: The difference is that Wilson, especially in his last three books, has mastered the mechanics of SF writing like few of his contemporaries.

It’s not that he never makes mistakes. I don’t think a review of his Darwinia has been written yet that doesn’t include the word “flawed”. But out of Darwinia grew Wilson’s current golden age (and got him a steady spot on the Hugo Awards nomination lists ever since) His last few books, including The Chronolith and Blind Lake, have been very well-received, and Spin is another work in the same mold. In fact, it has more than it shares of similitudes with The Chronolith: Once more, a character describes, in retrospect, how he lived through a few tumultuous decades, in light of what may charitably be described as an invasion from the unknown.

This time around, though, Earth isn’t colonized by mysterious monuments as much as it’s enveloped by a distortion field blocking it from the rest of the universe. Shades of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, you’ll say, except that Wilson develops the idea much further: The sun is blocked, but something substitutes its light and heat. The Moon disappears but its tidal effects survive. Satellites fall but the barrier is permeable. Then they discover that time passes a lot faster outside the field than inside… enabling Earth to survive more or less intact through thousands of years. Clearly, someone or something has gone through a lot of trouble to put the planet in a high-tech Mason jar. But why?

Big ideas indeed, but Wilson would rather focus on a few characters and so, after front-loading most of the Big Ideas at the beginning of the novel, he then slows the pace down and focuses on three main characters. Spin then becomes a romantic/family saga spanning a few decades, throughout which our three main characters experience and demonstrate the social changes afflicting an Earth cut out from the rest of the universe. There’s still plenty of SF goodness to come (including a Hail-Mary Mars colonization plan whose result I won’t spoil here) but Wilson makes it all accessible and compelling through savvy writing. It will help non-SF audiences that Wilson knows how to make his characters as compelling as his ideas.

Neither flashy nor boring, Wilson’s writing style finds beauty in simplicity. His prose is polished until all that’s left is the bare essentials. It looks easy, but it’s not: even after decades of development, SF writers often has trouble finding a good balance between good fiction and good ideas. It helps that Wilson (not a scientist himself) understands and respects SF’s base assumptions as well as any other SF professional, while acknowledging how the world really works. Spin, for instance, shows a good understanding of the interplay between politics and business. It also recognizes that the instincts of SF readers aren’t those of the real world: Worldwide superstition and irrationality end up forming a core part of the book, despite the main character’s understanding of the situation.

There’s an elegance to this book that is difficult to describe in only a few short sentences. There are a few flaws (the lengthy rescue section, for instance, should have been shortened), but Spin leaves the reader fulfilled and entertained, just as any good science-fiction story should. It also demonstrates why Wilson is, in his own quietly spectacular way, one of the best writers in the business. Three of his four last novels have netted him Hugo nominations: this one won’t break the trend.

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