Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review of "Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson

(This review has also been posted at

A sturdy home in the burbs seems the best metaphor describing Robert Charles Wilson’s 2005 Spin.  The novel does everything correctly.  It builds mystery in a curiosity evoking fashion.  The characters have all the right traits to color a story.  The prose moves the plot steadily forward, at times even gaining artistic heights.  And lastly, sci-fi elements support the evolving premise of the book as well as any fan of Heinlein, Wells, or Asimov could hope.  That being said, it is the mapped nature of the novel which undermines its overall quality, and ultimately leaves what is a solid domicile for some, lacking character for others.    

The fundamental concept underpinning Spin is that the earth is one day suddenly encapsulated in a time bubble by an unknown group dubbed the Hypotheticals.  While a minute remains minute and a second a second on earth, time in the universe beyond moves exponentially faster.  Wilson plays the idea in two directions for society.  The first are those who react positively to the notion only 50 years remain before the sun fizzles out.  They seek to profit from the knowledge available to experimentation having  millennia as a timeframe.  The second part of society, however, is in despair of the looming fate, effectively giving up on moral codes and civilized behavior. This dichotomy and the ground between are portrayed by the three protagonists: the twins Jason and Diane, and the main character Tyler, respectively.  Style smooth and literary, Wilson chronicles forty years of the lives of the three as they deal with the knowledge the sun will burn out in their lifetime.    

With the impending apocalypse at times less than convincing, character reaction is not the only divisive aspect of the novel.  Story content can likewise be split along two lines, scientific speculation and the relationship among the three main characters.  Thus, while astronomy and biology nerds delight on one hand, the eyes of romantics sparkle on the other.  Wilson fails to intertwine these two aspects, however.  Despite that the obvious intent was to impress upon readers the effect of catastrophic world events, it is rare that any of the characters are emotionally affected by the crime sprees, depression, and general chaos.  They live their “normal” lives carrying out their adolescent love drama, the chaos pushed to the background for the character development scenes.  In trying to drive home the human aspects of the desperation of the scenario, one would expect stronger ties between the two.  Pohl’s Gateway, for example, does a much better job of portraying a human at end, not to mention McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road.  As a result, Spin could have been split into two books: one in the hard sci-fi genre, the other in romance.  As so much sci-fi contains wooden characterization, however, Wilson shouldn’t be denounced too heavily for introducing plausible characters to a genre story, and in the end it is just the disconnection between the two which undermines the overall intent.

Another problem arising from the textbook nature of the novel is how contrived many of the scenes feel.  One can almost see the points in Wilson’s outline being ticked off one by one as the pages turn.  Main character is questioned by insignificant third-party to reveal inner personal secrets to reader. Check.  Main character “accidentally” runs into old flame and is forced to update life.  Check.  Scientist appears stage left for info dump on state of world after major event.  Check.  Create implausible distraction so that two characters can be alone.  Check.  And so on.  Suffice to say, some writers do a better job of disguising movements in timeframes and dispersal of necessary story info.

But there remain several positive points to the novel.  Wilson incorporates a large amount of research into the book.  Medicine, terraforming, rocketry, astronomy, the potential for life on Mars, planet seeding, etc. all fall under discussion, and at times, actively propel the plot.  For the hard science fans out there, this will certainly appeal.  As was mentioned, the strong prose coupled with the escalating feeling of suspense, though starting to peter toward the climax, nonetheless does an effective job of making the reader want to turn the page.  Hints and clues constantly left dangling, Wilson knows how to keep readers wanting to know the “real truth”.

Those who choose to pick up Spin will be left oscillating rather than spinning.  The two sided coin that is the novel – combination speculative science vs. love story – will enthrall or put off.  But in the end, the quality prose, interesting premise, and fully developed storyline will be enough for most readers to at least say it’s a sturdy effort by a competent writer and that their time hasn’t been wasted.  The house in the burbs, despite a few undesirables, has been good to them. 

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