Robert Charles Wilson,
(Tor, 2005)

Robert Charles Wilson is one of those science fiction authors who writes books to which I find myself unevenly attracted. Some I love, some don't thrill me, and much of the reason for this is the fact that Wilson's work is so wonderfully varied. He writes both near future and far future tales, he writes about aliens, time travel and alternate timestreams. He's been nominated for the Hugo and the World Fantasy awards, his 1994 novel Mysterium won the Philip K. Dick Award while The Chronoliths (2001) won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In short, Wilson is a talented writer who's constantly challenging both himself and his readers.

In his latest novel, Spin, perhaps in a bid to capture all of SF's awards in one go, Wilson has managed to combine nearly all of his previous story types in one very clever concoction. The book centers on Tyler Dupree and his relationship with Diane and Jason Lawton. The story begins one October evening, the year Tyler's 12 and the twins are 13, the night the stars go out ... and it spans the next three decades, or the next few billion years, depending on how one measures time.

"The Spin," as it comes to be called, is a mysterious, semi-permeable membrane that suddenly, without preamble, cuts the Earth off from the rest of the universe. The stars, the moon, all of Earth's communications satellites, disappear as if a massive curtain has fallen, a curtain that slows time for those trapped behind it. And yet the sun somehow continues to shine. While minutes pass for Tyler and his friends, millennia fly by outside the Spin barrier. And yet the sun continues to move across the sky at its normal stately pace. How and why has this happened, and who or what is responsible? These become the consuming questions for Wilson's characters.

Tyler Dupree and the rest of his generation grow to adulthood in a world that science is telling them cannot survive for more than a few decades. Outside the Spin membrane the sun is aging rapidly, and soon the Earth will no longer be within the habitable zone of the solar system. Unless something momentous is done, and done quickly, Tyler's will be the last generation for humanity.

This premise presents the author with a wonderful canvas upon which to paint a portrait of human behavior under extreme sociological pressures. And his triptych of perspectives allows him to envision a range of humanity's potential responses to impending extinction. In Jason Lawton, the reader is presented with the gifted student who wants to find a scientific cure to the Spin. Meanwhile Diane Lawton's life takes her down a spiritual road because, as her fiance Simon explains, "when it comes down to matters of life and death, faith always wins. Where would you rather spend eternity? In an earthly paradise or a sterile laboratory?"

For his part, Tyler Dupree, in awe of Jason and in love with Diane, tries to remain hopeful for humanity's future as he stumbles along in the Lawtons' wakes. He becomes a doctor, eventually working for Jason at Perihelion, a research facility founded by Jason's politically connected father. Perihelion's raison d'etre is to discover a means of exhuming humanity from its alien coffin. It's a quest that puts immense strain on the Lawton family as they each pursue their separate agendas. And Tyler, as seems to have been the case his entire life, is swept up in the chaotic Lawton turbulence.

Wilson paints his characters with bold strokes and yet manages to keep them from feeling archetypal. Jason is imbued with more than a scientist's superior intellect; he's a man struggling to emerge from the shadow of his powerful and domineering father. He's intolerant of his sister's choices, he's reckless and demanding, he's afraid of demonstrating personal weakness. This last trait puts him very much in Tyler's hands when Jason is stricken by a potentially debilitating medical condition. Meanwhile, Diane is no simple religious zealot; her faith is presented as an integral part of her complex and conflicted character. And while Jason and, to some extent, Tyler are dismissive of her beliefs, Wilson is not. He carefully manages his plot in order to provide balancing characters, characters that allow him to explore how faith can blind or enlighten.

Spin is quite an exceptional novel. It contains enough science to satisfy hard SF fans and, thanks to Wilson's attention to characterization and his stylistic craftsmanship, it will please readers looking for a more literary read. Wilson has put it all together in one very neat and entertaining package. Hopefully he's busy practicing his acceptance speeches.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 13 August 2005

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