Going through the Spin Cycle: Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Vortex is the long-awaited third novel in Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin Cycle. The first book, Spin, won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Its sequel Axis met with a much cooler reception. Be warned: the articles linked above are full of spoilers, so don’t read them unless you’ve read Spin and Axis, but on the flip side, they’ll be a good refresher if it’s been a while and you’re eager to jump into Vortex without rereading the earlier novels.

So, is Vortex as good as Spin? Well, not quite, but it’s considerably better than Axis. All in all, Vortex is a great novel, a worthy closer to the Spin Cycle, and a book you’ll definitely want to read if you enjoyed the previous two volumes.

Sandra Cole is an intake psychiatrist working for Texas State Care, an institution born in the chaos of the Spin years to help relieve the pressure on the state’s correctional facilities by keeping mentally challenged people out of the jail system and instead funneling them into a variety of (often involuntary) psychiatric care options. Sandra’s initial interview with a confused young man named Orrin Mather is unusual mainly because Bose, the police officer who brings him in, insists on sticking around. Afterwards, he asks her to review a document Orrin has written, but to keep its contents confidential.

The first sentence of Orrin’s text is: My name is Turk Findley.

And that’s immediately the first strength of Vortex. Spin started with a massive hook and then pulled the reader along with a combination of human drama and stunning SF concepts. Its sequel Axis started off slowly and only really got interesting towards the end. Vortex goes back to Spin‘s strength by offering that tantalizing, near-impossible first line from Orrin’s text right in the opening chapter, and then goes on to combine it with believable characters and some dizzying SF material.

Vortex alternates between two stories in two vastly different settings. The first one is the story of Sandra and Bose as they try to solve the mystery of Orrin Mather, his strange writings, and the real reason why he is being incarcerated for no good reason. This story takes place on Earth, about 25 years after the Spin — which means it actually takes place before the events of Axis. The second storyline in Vortex follows Turk Findley, who entered one of the Hypotheticals’ Temporal Arches at the end of Axis and now finds himself transported thousands of years in the future. He is quickly greeted by a representative of the Vox culture, which has been eagerly awaiting the return of Turk and other “Uptaken” for hundreds of years. After all, the Uptaken have been in communion with the Hypotheticals and must therefore be saints or even semi-divine beings — or so the people of Vox believe. Turk’s main Vox contact is Treya, a young woman who has been trained to interact with the returned Uptaken. This doesn’t just mean that she learned contemporary English, but also that she had an “impersona” installed: an artificial construct of another person’s memories and thoughts, in this case based on the diary of a 21st century woman called Allison Pearl.

What makes Vortex work so well is the tension between the two narratives. They’re set thousands of years apart but clearly connected in a number of obvious and less obvious ways. It’s not just the mysterious fact that 21st century Orrin appears to be channeling the far-future Turk Findley in his writings, although that alone was enough to keep me fascinated (and believe me, when you get to the explanation, your head will be spinning). There’s also Treya, whose 21st century “impersona” Allison Pearl becomes dominant early in the novel, turning her situation into a mirror of Turk’s. Turk and Allison/Treya’s stay in the Vox “limbic democracy” also echoes themes of free will and social engineering in the 21st century. And most obviously, there are also environmental lines going from one story to the other, with Officer Bose present during a demonstration against the importation of oil reserves from Equatoria to Earth, while in the far future it’s revealed that this double dose of carbon emissions was a huge factor in the fatal poisoning of the planet. One of my favorite quotes from Vortex is Sandra diagnosing humanity as if it’s one of her patients:

Subject is confused and often self-destructive. Subject pursues short-term gratification at the expense of its own well-being.

Vortex manages to turn Turk Findley, who I didn’t find especially compelling in Axis, into a fascinating character. The Vox culture and the entire concept of limbic and cortical democracies (which I won’t spoil for you here) is wonderful, and seeing Turk navigate it with his 21st century sensibilities is interesting. Also returning from Axis is the “communicant” Isaac, and his story line provides some of the major revelations people were probably hoping for in Axis. In the other storyline, both Sandra and Bose are interesting characters, and if there’s one complaint I have, it’s that their story seems a bit rushed. In fact, the entire novel feels trimmed down, as if 500 pages worth of story were cut down to 300 and change.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Vortex may once again feel light when compared to Spin, but despite the story’s focus on just a few individuals, the scope is much, much wider than it was in Axis. Many things happened in the years that passed while Turk was inside the Arch, and most of it is just hinted at in the novel: the Martian diaspora, the downfall of the Earth, the string of Arch-connected worlds, the evolution of the limbic and cortical democracies… Vortex casts a much wider net than Axis, and it hints at a number of events and concepts that could be developed further in future novels or stories. Especially the end of the novel feels like Robert Charles Wilson had his finger firmly on the fast forward button, while I wished I could grab the remote and hit pause a few times to take a closer look at all the marvelous stuff that was zooming by.

Having just written the two articles about Spin and Axis, it’s hard not to veer into full-on spoiler mode here by revealing and analyzing everything in Vortex. Instead, I’ll just leave you with a strong recommendation to check this novel out. If you haven’t read Spin yet, this is as good an excuse as any to pick it up now. Really, it’s one of the better SF novels of that last decade or so. Don’t skip its sequel Axis, because even though it’s a bit weaker, most of Vortex links back to it. And now that Vortex is out, you can jump right into this excellent third volume. After the slight disappointment of Axis, my faith is fully restored.


Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. Many of his reviews can be found at Fantasy Literature.

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