With the recent publication of Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson, I decided to re-read the first two books in the trilogy, Spin and Axis, to warm up for the long-awaited new novel and to refresh my memory. Like every truly excellent novel, it turns out that Spin is better and more rewarding on the second read-through. What follows below contains huge spoilers for Spin, but nothing about Axis or Vortex. Seriously, don’t read this if you haven’t read Spin yet.
As a child, Tyler Dupree is watching the night sky with his friends, the twins Jason and Diane Lawton, when suddenly the stars disappear. Eventually, it becomes clear that they’re still there, but hidden behind a mysterious shield or membrane that has enveloped the entire planet. Shortly afterwards, every single satellite that was in orbit crashes down, and what’s even stranger is that they somehow seem to have aged thousands of years. Eventually we learn that the “Spin membrane” has captured the Earth in something like a slow time field: for every minute that passes on the planet’s surface, thousands of years go by in the wider universe.
E.D. Lawton, who is Jason and Diane’s father, takes advantage of the situation by launching Perihelion, a company that manufactures high altitude “aerostat” balloons that can fulfill some of the functions satellites used to handle. His exceptionally brilliant son, Jason, eventually takes over the company and becomes instrumental in finding out who or what caused the Spin and finding a way for the Earth to survive. His sister Diane finds comfort in one of the ecstatic New Kingdom sects that spring up. And Tyler somehow always remains in Jason and Diane’s orbit, a first-hand observer of the people and events that will shape the future of the planet. Meanwhile, the Sun’s life cycle can now be measured in subjective decades on Earth, because on the outside of the Spin membrane the millennia are speeding by.
The scope of the novel is driven home right from the start when you see the title of what turns out to be the framing story: “4 X 109 A.D.” That’s a lot of zeroes for a year, even if at that point you really have no idea yet how we ended up at that date from the very recognizable present-day start of the main story. Robert Charles Wilson is working on a scale that doesn’t very easily compute for mere mortals. Spin occasionally gave me the same sense of vertigo I experienced when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men for the first time, but in a much more readable format. Fortunately, Wilson is an expert at putting everything in understandable terms and easily explains how we got from here to there in the main story.
One thing I somehow didn’t fully realize the first time around is the fact that the main story of the novel — really a series of flashbacks — is being written down compulsively by Tyler as he suffers from “graphomania” while going through the hellish transition to Fourth. I’m not sure if that qualifies Tyler as an unreliable narrator. Throughout the novel he seems to be a fairly dispassionate and accurate observer, and he was unquestionably close to the major players and important events, but if the entire story was really written down while he was incapacitated and feverish… I don’t know. Maybe the opposite is true, and the graphomania actually allows Tyler to structure everything in his mind — or as he writes early on: “Words like anchors, tethering boats of memory that would otherwise be scuttled by the storm.”
For me, one of the many real eye-opening moments of this novel was the terraforming of Mars. Because time passes by so incredibly fast outside of the membrane, dropping payloads of microbes and seeds on Mars and letting them do their slow work takes only a few seconds of subjective time on Earth. An entire ecosystem can be created in a matter of weeks or months. (Who would have guessed that the one ingredient Kim Stanley Robinson was missing was a few hundred million years of time to play with?) On the day the manned ships are launched, Tyler is driving home at night and realizes that, in the few hours since the launch, 100,000 years have passed on Mars, and entire dynasties may have come and gone in the time it takes the traffic light to change. And then, inevitably, a second Spin membrane appears around the red planet.
Soon after that, the entire story changes again when we learn that a Martian ambassador has arrived on Earth, launched into space when the Martians discovered they were next in line for a Spin membrane. Through Wun, we get tantalizing glimpses of the thriving society on Mars, built up around the concept of sustainability and limited by the absence of natural resources like oil (no fossils, right, of course.) The Martian civilization has been around for millennia and started out with all of Earth’s knowledge, so it’s almost natural that the scientific archives the ambassador brings with him become a huge source of contention on Earth.
That also drives home again how much is really going on in this novel. It’s hard science fiction. It’s post-apocalyptic. It’s a family drama and a love story. Terraforming and space colonization. Religion and, yes, politics too, because Wilson gives us several looks at how the Spin impacts society. Wars, new religions, hopelessness, hedonism. Or as Tyler asks early on, “So how do you build a life under the threat of extinction?” It’s amazing all of this fit on just a few hundred pages.
When I thought Wilson couldn’t possibly pull something else out of his hat, he adds the von Neumann machines to the mix: self-replicating artificial life, shot into space to slowly (but quickly from Earth’s perspective) build a huge sentient network in the outer reaches of the Solar System and gather information about the Hypotheticals. What it encounters really blows the scale of the novel beyond the realms of most other SF: not just other von Neumann machines, but a pre-existing and galaxy-spanning ecology of them. And yes, it looks like that vast network of sentient artificial life is responsible for the Spin, patiently nurturing Earth, Mars and other planets for billions of years. Why? It’s suggested that the Hypotheticals may be trying to save planets that are on a path to self-destruction, but a conclusive answer hasn’t been delivered by the end of Spin. It also becomes clear that the Martian life-extending treatment that turns Jason, Diane and Tyler into “Fourths” may be just the first step in a process that enables communication with the vast galaxy-spanning entity that set everything in motion.
Somehow, while delivering all these mind-blowing concepts, Robert Charles Wilson also manages to turn Spin into a very personal story about love and family. The childhood friends Tyler, Jason, and Diane remain in each other’s orbits throughout the novel in an almost co-dependent way. Tyler has an unrequited crush on Diane, preventing him from having a meaningful relationship with anyone else. He also ends up as Jason’s personal physician when a debilitating disease threatens to make it impossible for him to keep working. Diane stays in touch with Tyler, even when the New Kingdom religion she gets involved with morphs into a dangerous cult. Going back a generation, Diane had a fantasy that her father is also Tyler’s father, but the truth proves to be something else entirely. There’s a surprising amount of loneliness in this novel. Tyler is unable to connect romantically. Tyler’s mother, Jason and Diane’s parents. Jason with his supreme intellect and Diane with her religious sensibilities even manage to be lonely as twins. All of them are as emotionally isolated as the Earth is physically isolated. The story of the Lawtons and Duprees is sad and beautiful, and without it, Spin wouldn’t be half the novel it turned out to be.
And to top it all off, everything comes delivered in Robert Charles Wilson’s precise and lovely prose. You’re seeing an incomprehensible event through the prism of a narrator who is trying to make sense of his life, his relationships, and the fast-approaching end of the world. Tyler’s calmness and sometimes almost dispassionate tone manage to put some distance between the reader and the mind-bending scope of the novel’s events without completely losing the sense of surreality. Re-reading the novel, I jotted down several pages full of gorgeous quotes. The smallest details in the story often work on several levels at once, and they’re sometimes all too easy to miss because there’s always so much happening. The early parts of the framing story are practically impossible to appreciate fully without having read the rest of the novel. Spin is really an excellent book to re-read.
2005 was an amazing year for science fiction and fantasy. In addition to Spin, the final ballot of the 2006 Hugo Awards listed Learning the World by Ken MacLeod, A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi and Accelerando by Charles Stross. That’s some serious competition. Many people didn’t expect Spin to win the Hugo at the time, but looking back now, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. How rare is it to come up with such an astounding new idea — a membrane that slows time inside it while outside the universe ages impossibly fast — and then, by the end of the novel, reveal that it was just a very small part of a much larger entity. Spin is simply a masterwork of science fiction.
Onwards to Axis.