Review of the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.
Winner of the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel, Spin is the second novel I’ve read by Robert Charles Wilson. The first was The Chronoliths, a nifty idea which I thought fell short on both the plot end and the character end. Spin has its flaws, but it’s all-around a far superior novel.
Spin has a framing sequence taking place in the far future, but the main story begins in the near future when three lifelong friends, the narrator, Tyler Dupree, and the twins Jason and Diane Lawton, are entertaining themselves one evening while the Lawtons’ parents are throwing a party. Suddenly all the stars go out, even more suddenly than in a famous science fiction short story. Actually, Earth has been suddenly enclosed in a membrane which filters perceptions of the outside cosmos, letting through enough sunlight for life to survive and blocking out most everything else.
Jason grows up as his father E.D.’s right hand man, helping run a powerful company to learn what the membrane – called the Spin – is, and how mankind can free itself from it. Diane instead joins an apocalyptic religion and retreats from her family and friends. Tyler gets a medical degree and becomes Jason’s doctor and confidante. They soon learn that the membrane is protecting Earth from the effect of speeding up the passage of time, so that 100 million years pass outside the membrane for every year that passes on Earth. That works out to about 3 years every second, which naturally leaves everyone concerned that the universe will actually come to an end in their lifetime. Yet this leaves the questions: Who’s done this to us? Why? Why haven’t they shown themselves?
I think that Spin aspires to consider humanity’s reaction to being placed in this incredible and fatalistic situation through the eyes of its characters, but it rarely really considers the gestalt of humanity’s reactions: There are occasional riots, periods of resignation, the seemingly-obligatory religious fervor, and an awful lot of coping. Only this last is really handled in much depth, as the technical challenges are considered (the Spin, after all, cuts Earth off from all its orbiting satellites), and some of the decisions that people make when faced with the end of the world – albeit one which will come years or decades later – affect the main characters. But our heroes – who are mainly Tyler and Jason – are too privileged and isolated to really have more than a distant view of how most of the world is dealing with the situation.
Consequently the bulk of the book is a chronicle of its characters lives, as seen through Tyler’s eyes (and occasionally through Jason’s words). Jason is obsessed with doing what he can to free humanity from the Spin, and he feels the weight of his task – not to mention his relationship with his power father – on his shoulders. Tyler is more of a strict observer, Jason’s friend but also his inferior, haunted by his romantic feelings for the distant Diane, but unable to really contribute directly to Jason’s projects. Still, his position makes him an important witness to many of the remarkable events that occur during the story. Neither character is especially complex – indeed, Wilson takes pains to note that Jason is something of a one-note character by his own choice – so the book doesn’t entirely work as a character drama. There are periods of dramatic interest, but I think the book drags at times as it tries to pace out the characters’ lives, but their lives outside the Spin aren’t all that interesting. It’s only as they relate to the Spin that they really have meaning. (While this is, strictly speaking, a criticism, to be fair Spin isn’t any worse than most SF novels in this regard; it’s actually somewhat better.)
Fortunately the science fictional plot picks up plenty of the slack. You may think I’ve given away the big surprise in explaining what the Spin is, but there’s a lot more in here revolving around Jason’s efforts to find a way to break free of the Spin, including two clever ideas for “gaming the system”, making the Spin work for humanity rather than against it. It’s not hard science fiction per se, but it mixes some traditional science fictional ideas with some more modern ones and comes up with a fairly novel concoction. The reason behind the Spin is indeed explained, and not only was it not at all what I’d expected it would be, but it makes sense, turning out to actually be a high concept behind all the mystery. It’s pretty rare that a novel can pull that off without seeming cheesy, and despite its flaws Spin is never cheesy.
What isn’t explained is why the membrane is called “the Spin” by the characters, as it doesn’t seem descriptive of the phenomenon.
Overall this is quite a good read. The best SF novel of 2006? Well, that’s always a tough argument to make, but certainly I’ve read worse Hugo winners. I may be a bit jaded at times, but this one has a satisfying conclusion and several moments of “whoa, that’s cool”, and that’s a pretty good foundation for any novel. The sequel is Axis, which I suspect heads off in rather a different direction.