Thursday, March 24, 2005

Book Review: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

I read this book in two days. There are very few books that I can say that about. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, is one of those rare science fiction novels that is simultaneously a book about Big Ideas and a compelling character study.

The premise is relatively straightforward, and one that fans of Greg Egan's work (specifically Quarantine) will be familiar with. Humanity is suddenly enclosed in a membrane that isolates it from the universe at large. In Quarantine, the membrane encompasses the entire solar system, and is impermeable; it's properties resemble those of a black hole turned inside out. In Spin, the membrane surrounds only the earth, and does not actually prevent anything from leaving. Instead, time inside the volume enclosed by the membrane is drastically slowed down: for every year that passes on the Earth, a hundred million years pass in the universe at large.

The central characters of Spin are as compelling as the innovative plot device. The story is narrated by Tyler Dupree, an everyman physician who, due to his connection with a pair of extraordinary twins, ends up caught in the midst of cultural upheavel caused by the membrane's appearance. One of twins, Jason Lawton, is the scion of wealthy industrialist E.D. (his company manufactures high-altitude balloons; his fortune is truly made when, with the onset of the Spin, the earth's network of communications satellites falls from the sky.) Jason grows up to run Perihelion, the organization charged with understanding the Spin and, if possible, enabling humanities survival beyond it. Jason's twin sister, Diane, reacts to the Spin in a completely different way. Convinced that hers is the last generation of humanity - that she will live to see the Sun swallow the Earth whole - she throws herself into a life religious hedonism that, with time, degenerates into a life of religious fanaticism (the cover blurb says she marries a "sinister cult leader who's forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses", which isn't quite accurate: her husband Simon is basically a good-natured, though slightly dull man of faith who sincerely believes the End of Days has arrived. He is a cult-member, not a cult leader ... I mention this because one of the few disappointments of the book was waiting for that particular sub-plot to pony up with the implied drama, which never came.)

Tyler is child-hood friends with the Lawton twins (his mother was a sort of live-in maid for the Lawton family.) Inevitably, he falls for the beautiful and lively Diane; just as inevitably, he is forced to keep his feelings to himself. Their paths in life diverge, and while Tyler's feelings for Diane are submerged, they never die; they remain in contact throughout. Meanwhile, Jason brings Tyler to work at Perihelion as the staff physician, giving Tyler a privelaged view of humanity's efforts to beat the mysterious Hypotheticals before it's too late.

The first plan is to use the rapid passage of time to the species' advantage. As the sun warms, so does Mars; microbes are sent to the Red Planet, followed by simple plants, followed eventually by colonization effort. A hundred million years pass on Mars before the colonists' arrival, plenty of time for microbes to fix soil nitrogen, and for plants to oxygenate the atmosphere. Thousands of years pass for the Martians - enough time for them to develop a highly advanced bionanotechnology - before, inevitably, the Hypotheticals notice and cover Mars in a similar membrane. The second plan is to use von Neumann probes to explore the galaxy. Once again, a process that would take tens of millions of years is accomplished in what, for earth, amounts to a matter of months.

These two plans illustrate the great strength of Wilson's work: to take the modern, everyday world, give it a tweak in an unexpected direction, and then follow through the logical consequences and implications as far his imagination can take him. Which, I hardly have to add, is quite far. His previous books - namely Darwinia and Chronoliths - seem to use a similar device. It's an honoured science fiction tradition to structure stories this way, especially amongst British authors: virtually everything written by H. G. Wells and John Whyndham used this device.

If you're already a fan of Wilson's work, I probably don't have to tell you to buy this book. If you've never read him before - I hadn't - I suggest you start. The characters are as empathetic as anything in mainstream literature, and the ideas will blow your mind.


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