Wed
Jan 28 2009 9:57am

Near future and far future: Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin

What’s so brilliant about Spin is the way that it’s a terrific human story as well as a terrific gosh-wow new-ideas science fiction story. It’s so good at this that it’s hard to think of anything else that’s as good in quite the same way. It’s hard to play the “if you like x you’ll like y” game with it. It isn’t in a subgenre, unless cutting-edge science fiction is itself a subgenre.

It’s also astonishingly good at pacing of revelation—by which I mean the speed at which the reader finds out what’s going on. The story’s being told in first person and very much in hindsight, and very much as a told story, with an ongoing thread and a past-time thread, and Wilson uses all this to get the information across in bite size pieces that appear just when you want them. The tension in this book is carried, and admirably carried, by “what is going on” on all levels. Spin is a very self aware story; it has characters who have read SF, a Martian who makes Stranger in a Strange Land jokes, it knows all the SF tricks, and yet because it’s dealing with new ideas and a strong human story I think it would probably be very approachable for a new reader. My son read it when he was sixteen (though already anything but a naive SF reader) and was totally and utterly blown away by it.

Not very far in the future (the book begins approximately tomorrow) there are these three kids, a pair of twins (Jason and Diane) and their friend Tyler. They’re out on the lawn when suddenly the stars go out. The book is a long exploration of why this has happened and how humanity, and most especially those three people, deal with the consequences.

I’m reluctant to talk about the extremely nifty ideas in Spin, because a lot of the joy of the book even, or perhaps especially, in a re-read is seeing them playing out so beautifully. But I have to mention the Spin itself. The world has been sped up relative to the universe. While a day goes by on Earth, a hundred thousand years are passing outside. This means that the book deals both with a near future and with the immense geological time spans, the life and death of stars and planets, the time it takes to terraform and civilize Mars, that are now within an ordinary human lifespan.

It won the Hugo, and very well deserved it was. This is the kind of book that makes me feel excited by science fiction all over again. It makes me want to jump up and down and say “Read it, read it, read it!” to all my friends.

24 comments
Torie Atkinson
1. Torie
This is one of my absolute favorite novels for all the reasons you describe. The characters and their relationships are sincere, believable, and compelling. The science fiction in it is astonishingly creative without overwhelming the character drama--it is always about the three of them, always, even when the world is ending and you want to know why. I give it to anyone and everyone who will take it, especially those who have never read an SF novel. My mother, for one, loved it.

Spin is full of these striking images that stick with me even now, even though I haven't picked up the book in nearly three years: the image of Jason barreling down on his bike, tenuously holding onto that rickety machine; the love letter that is and isn't exactly what you think it is; and of course that first night beneath the stars, when they all disappear.

It's brilliant, and touching, and smart, and sad all at once. I love everyone it in, even the people I can't stand.

And, clearly, I need to read it again. Thank you, Jo.
Sandi Kallas
2. Sandikal
"Spin" is one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read. It doesn't let science overshadow character and it doesn't short-change the science. I really, really love this book.

I've also read "Chronoliths" and "Blind Lake" by Robert Charles Wilson. They were wonderful too, but he really outdid himself with "Spin".
Ben R
3. sphericaltime
Spin was very, very good. Axis was not quite as good, but I will go out on a limb and say: "If you liked Spin, you'll probably like Axis too."

I think my favorite scene was the nuclear strike in Spin. That was one of the moments when the strangeness of it all was finally hit home for me.

And I still laugh over PNH's suggested title for the trilogy.
Garett Harnish
4. garett
It is an amazing book. Axis, it's sequel, is also good, just not as epic. The sad thing is that my friends and I would've probably never read either if Tor hadn't given away Spin in its an-ebook-a-week promo for this new site.

In fact, the only disappointing thing I found concerning Axis is it isn't/wasn't available for purchase anywhere in mobi format (or any other for eBook format for that matter). Not that it stopped me from buying a copy, it was just an overly bulky paper one.

I'm looking forward to Vortex, whenever that is released.
Helen Wright
5. arkessian
I think I will just use your posts to drive my re-read habit!

Yes, it left me gasping with wonder, reminding me all over again of the reason I love science-fiction.
joelfinkle
6. joelfinkle
Allow me to be a dissenting vote: Spin was extremely unsatisfying. Note: I read it in ARC form, but would be astounded to find that the plot changed from galley to bookstore.

I want my SF to manifest some understanding of the science, some payoff for the conflict. All we get is an "I don't know" at the end, and "buy the next book". Sometimes the mystery is the mystery, but when the central conflict is "Why are we spun?" there had better be some answers.

The general feeling to me in this book is despair: there's no hope! But if Earth and Mars are equally "spun" -- why can't they communicate via rocket at least more often than once? Overlooked items like that make the book appear lame to me.

I was shocked when this won the Hugo over Accelerando and Old Man's War, both vastly better reads.
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
I opened up the e-book of this on my Palm, just to see that it transferred over okay, and said, "Why didn't anyone tell me that this had a great first line?"

To wit, "Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere."

I still haven't read it, because I'm trying to get through other stuff pre-Hugo-nomination deadine. But I'm really looking forward to it.
Sumana Harihareswara
8. brainwane
It's a fantastic book. I'd say it's comparable to Ender's Game in that you can give it to friends & family who've never read any scifi before and they'll love it.
Fred Coppersmith
9. FCoppersmith
Spin is easily one of my favorite recent sf novels. I quite liked Axis and Blind Lake, but neither wowed me in quite the same way. By Wilson's own admission, Axis is a very different book than Spin, just as the planned third book in the series (Vortex) will be a very different book than Axis.
joelfinkle
10. Coops
I wasn't as quite blown away by this book as perhaps others, mainly because I thought it took a while to get to the punchline so to speak, I.e. what the spin is. Once it was revealed though the author still had time to flesh the story out and make the wait mostly satisfying, mainly with the grandeur of the big idea in this book. I was really glad about that! I read a peter Hamilton book a whole ago where he took more than 600 pages to build up to his Big Explanation and by that time my expectations were so high you couldn't help feeling let down. The only other note is that the beginning of the book is very much like reading Rau Bradbury with the folksy kind of wide eyed wonder of a very human story that just happens to be called science fiction.
Mary Robinette Kowal
11. MaryRobinette
I loved this book and wouldn't have read it if it weren't in the free e-book package. I picked up copies for my nephew and a friend, because this is the type of science-fiction that makes me so excited. As you say, a big SF concept and a real, compelling human story.
joelfinkle
12. R. Emrys
My pocket description of Spin is that it's the story that takes place behind the scenes of a Larry Niven bestseller.
- -
13. heresiarch
joelfinkle @ 6: "All we get is an "I don't know" at the end, and "buy the next book". Sometimes the mystery is the mystery, but when the central conflict is "Why are we spun?" there had better be some answers. "

What do you mean? By the end of the book, we know exactly why they were spun.
ennead ennead
14. ennead
I loved the sf ideas in Spin but I was quite disappointed in the viewpoint character. He doesn't drive the story and is only there to tell us how brilliant Jason is.
I understand the challenge it would be to tell the story from Jason's point of view, but what a pay-off we'd have!
Pablo Defendini
15. pablodefendini
I loved Spin, and never would have picked it up if it hadn't been a free ebook either. While Axis is on my to-read list, the only other book of his I've read is his upcoming Julian Comstock which, although completely and utterly different, is also a fantastic read.
seth johnson
16. seth
Wow. I was just whining two days ago in my comments below this story that _SPIN_ is the same price at Amazon whether it's in paperback or Kindle format....

Pretty syncratic to see this excellent review after my reference.

Looking forward to reading this book.

Seth
David Goldfarb
17. David_Goldfarb
When I read Spin, something about the scene when the stars were swirling made me feel that it was the seed; the image that arose first, with the rest of the book existing to give that image sense and explore its consequences. I emailed Robert Charles Wilson to ask him about it, and he said that that was more or less right, and that he was pleased someone had noticed. It made me feel smug about my powers of perception.
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Well, unlike all those of you who wouldn't have read it except that you got it free, I'd been reading Wilson for years. His earlier works are not as brilliant as Spin but they're all interesting and thought provoking. I love The Chronoliths.

The other thing I was thinking I should have said in the review was how poetic it is, it's poetic about science in the way that Clarke is at his best.

Ennead (are you the same Ennead I used to know on usenet?): I disagree. I think the story of Tyler and Diane is as interesting as the story of Jason, in some ways more interesting. What makes the book work is having all three of them.
ennead ennead
19. ennead
Jo: Sorry but this handle is fairly new for me.

I agree with you, their stories are interesting. I just wish we could hear their sides of the story instead of having the viewpoint character guessing at what they're feeling or thinking.
Wouldn't you want to read about the meetings and ideas Jason had that he didn't tell Tyler about? Or listen to Diane's inner struggle? Or experience the Hypotheticals with Jason?

That's why I like Egan, Chiang and Vinge: They can make me feel truly alien. Wilson just made me witness the alien.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Emmead: No, I think the book is well served by it's POV discipline.
Sandi Kallas
21. Sandikal
I have to agree with Jo about the POV. Tyler is more of an everyman than Jason, thus he's more identifiable to the reader. He's close enough to the action to have an idea of what's going on, but what he doesn't know is what maintains the suspense of the story. I liked that the POV wasn't changing all the time. It made me feel like I was part of the story rather than just watching it.
Nicole Cardiff
22. NicoleCardiff
I loved Spin. I liked most of his other books, but since I read Spin first and was blown away, I don't think they quite compare. This one has the sense of world crisis we get from concerns like climate change, and just plain excellent writing.
Dominic Wellington
23. riotnrrd
@joelfinkle:

I have to agree. I didn't find it *bad*, just not as good as your own examples. There were some very interesting ideas, but I didn't empathize with any of the characters, which never helps.
joelfinkle
24. AlanHK
Actually if an Earth day is 100,000 years off Earth, Earth time has been massively slowed down, not sped up.

Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg about life on a neutron star has massively sped up timescales relative to us, so civilisations rise and fall in hours.

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