Axis, Robert Charles Wilson

Tor, 2007, 303 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-0939-6

Robert Charles Wilson fans anxiously waiting to pounce upon this sequel to the Hugo-nominated Spin may want to temper their enthusiasm, take a deep breath and maybe even wait a year or two. Axis is a follow-up to a book that didn’t need one, but it’s obviously the second volume in what could be a trilogy and unlike Spin, it feels like it’s setting up something else.

It begins much like Spin. The echo of a young boy witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon at night carries from the previous volume, even though in this case it’s ash falling rather than the stars disappearing that causes concern. Things get more interesting when the ash fall is revealed to be made of decayed alien machinery which crumble to dust. Clearly, the mysterious alien influences that drove the events of Spin are still being felt, and it’s up to the human characters to figure out what’s happening.

They are not the same characters that we followed in Spin. At one exception, this is a new generation of explorers, obsessives and drifters that have ended up on the new world where humans are struggling to understand their new place in the universe. The colony’s government isn’t completely benign, the question of the genetically modified Fourths continues to be controversial and the mystery of the alien presence continues to float above the plot.

But never mind the ideas, because the emphasis here is on characters. The woman looking for the truth that made her father disappear. The boy who discovers his superhuman abilities. The man who’s got nowhere else to go but the frontier. The elderly Fourth who hopes to avoid repeating the mistakes that still haunt her. Axis throttles back on the density of ideas and keeps up the emphasis on the people living through it all, a move that recalls Wilson’s first few novels. It’s no coincidence if Axis feels like a much smaller book than Spin.

The result, unfortunately, is also a novel that feels emptier than its predecessor. There isn’t as much to discuss, and whatever is in the novel seems to be waiting for the third volume before blooming to its fullest. The conclusion itself reads like a muddy abstraction, enough to mark the end of the novel but not clearly enough to provide much closure. It’s a frustrating state in which to leave readers, and I suspect that this wait-and-see attitude won’t reflect well on the novel until the next book comes out. As it stands, Axis doesn’t hold up very well without knowledge of Spin, and it feels unfinished. It would have been nice for the marketing geniuses at Tor to acknowledge a “second volume in a trilogy” mention somewhere on the book, but they haven’t done so yet on other novels, so why should they start being honest now?

Fortunately, there are other good reasons to read Axis: The characterization, as previously mentioned, is up to Wilson’s best standards, and so is his prose. Wilson’s matter-of-fact writing is just as accessible as it’s ever been, and the storyline is just compelling enough to lead from chapter to chapter. But this is definitely a novel that leads into the next one, so don’t expect a satisfying reading experience until you have the sequel on-hand.

Don’t expect much critical consensus on this novel either. This is Wilson’s first attempt at a series, and even if Axis is up to his prose standards, it doesn’t succeed as a standalone book and will depends on its as-yet-untitled sequel to satisfy reader expectations. In the meantime, there just isn’t much to say about the book. It’s like trying to decide the worth of an entire novel after reading a particularly uneventful middle third.

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