Review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
I picked up Spin, because it had been chosen as the second twitter #sfbookclub selection. I finished it a bit late to really take part in the discussion, but I’m glad it jumped my to-read piles. Spin won the Hugo in 2006. The sequel, Axis, was published in 2007.
Spin follows a few decades of humanity’s struggles after the Earth is cut off from the rest of the Universe. Technology, religion, and are role in the larger universe are all called into question. Grand experiments are undertaken, both by humanity and it would seem on humanity. The story unfolds in two alternating time frames, the earlier of which ends where the later began, both told in the first person by Tyler Dupree, one of the 3 main characters. The brilliance of Spin is that it manages to shine at both the character level and at the high concept level. The events are awe inspiring enough that even when we’re explicitly told what the next section of the story is building towards it’s still a wonder to behold when it happens.
For instance, we’re told early on in the latter of two time frames about “the night the stars went out.” We’re then presented with the a segment that climaxes with the stars going out. This technique is used constantly throughout the book to great effect. I have a feeling that this was done for more than just literary effect. Viewing the story from 2 perspectives illustrates the very nature of the world as presented in Spin. The basic premise, which is elaborated on extensively by the end of the book is that time is passing much quicker for the rest of the Universe than it is for the Earth. This is like the time dilation of travel near the speed of light that becomes an important aspect of any story that involves interstellar space flight, however our entire civilization is affected.
Our narrator was friends in childhood with a set of twins. One goes on to be a major player in a re-imagined aerospace industry, following in the footsteps of his father. The other finds herself connected with a series of religious movements that wax and wane in the shadow of an unblinking sun. These drastically different reactions to world changing events are brought into stark reality through the personal relationship our narrator has with the twins.
I’ve mentioned in other reviews that I have a fondness for explicit world building stories. I liked seeing Mars terraformed in the Kim Stanley Robinson trilogy. I quite enjoyed the creation of a new reality in the apocalyptic fantasy The Crooked Letter. Spin takes this to new heights and just as the structure of the narrative suggests the premise of the story, some of humanity’s technological reactions to the mysterious situation suggest the answer to the mystery. The complexity of the situation combined with the simple character driven narrative build an unforgettable novel. It’s a neat feeling to have a relatively hard science fiction novel that I’d feel comfortable recommending to the average non-sf reader.
Recommendations for Further Reading
I haven’t read Axis, although Spin ended with a pretty neat universe to play in, so I may very well check it out. It says a lot about Spin that it reminded me of many varied science fiction stories I’ve enjoyed in the past. The mars trilogy I mentioned above starts with Red Mars. The religious elements and the connection to mars reminded me of Stranger in a Strange Land. The whole “time moving faster from the point of view of the rest of the Universe” brings to mind The Forever War. And last but not least, the Von Neumann machines brought to mind True Names by Doctorow and Rosenbaum.