Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, is a book that constantly showed up on lists of books I should have read by now. Its reputation is so present that whenever I wanted something big and exciting, the cover art would worm its way into my brain. It was also name dropped at various moments in different podcasts or discussions of what constitutes “good, deep and interesting” science fiction. So this year I decided it was time to tackle the beast. Fortunately, it was as big and meaty as was promised, but I found it slightly lacking in the departments that made me most interested in it.
The stars have disappeared. The Night sky is no longer populated by the lights that have guided humanity for centuries. People are scared, excited, and most of all, confused. Tyler Dupree is somehow near the center of it all. Not through his own particular skill, but because his family happens to be good friends with Jason and Diane Lawton, twins from an extremely wealthy family of engineering and technology oriented business folks who have the ears of Congress. Throughout his life, Tyler bounces around, getting closer and closer in proximity to Jason as he gets closer and closer to solving the problem of the “spin.” Diane, however, gets caught up in a new sect of christianity that responds to the crisis with a compassionate hedonism that eventually splinters as more information is revealed about the “spin.” Decades go by, and Tyler attempts to live the life he grew up wanting, with it ever just out of reach. But a deadline has been set by the scientific community, and no one knows what will happen when the clock runs out.
If you’re the type of person who likes “big ideas,” Spin is an absolute must. It explores the consequences of a reality altering event in pretty spectacular ways. Wilson tries to engage with the event from both scientific and religious perspectives, offering the broad-spectrum of human experience, at least in the United States of America. Admittedly, the religious portions are a little undeveloped, but they lend a little bit of weight to give the story some oomph. The science oriented story is filled with mystery, tension and the excitement that comes with trying to solve a problem that people don’t quite understand. It feels alien and outside the average person’s ability to comprehend. Information is delivered to the reader, but Wilson cleverly cleans up after himself so there aren’t crumbs of a clearer picture. This cleanliness is maintained through the book and makes the event feel even stranger even as more information is divulged.
Tyler is the perfect character to view the story through. I’m a big proponent of “passive” perspectives when they are utilized well, and Wilson puts Tyler to work. He ping pongs between the twins for increasingly long intervals, allowing the reader to engage with Jason’s ground breaking work, while Diane’s life slowly unravels and she is estranged from the world and her family. Tyler is not dumb, but he’s not an active participant, just sort of doing what he thinks needs to be done to ease the passing of humanity. He becomes a doctor, which helps keep him within Jason’s orbit as power struggles occur between the various branches of the US Government and Lawton’s company. Some of the interactions contained a vague menace, akin to Oryx and Crake where it feels like the main character is in over his head and is putting faith in the wrong places. It makes Tyler feel like he needs to pay more attention, but slows the flow of information just enough to avoid overwhelming the reader. Larger gears are turning in the background that we just aren’t privy to and it works.
While the plot of the book is resolved, I found the thematic elements incomplete. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering there are two books that follow, but it left me a little wanting. This probably comes from my reading of it as an allegory for climate change, the ethereal future that has promised great death and destruction and the fact that the environmental movement in the U.S., at the time was barely getting its head on straight. It doesn’t quite leave a sour taste in the mouth, but it does fall heavily to one side of the twins more than the other, without as much investigation as I would have liked. Where Wilson does succeed with the thematic bits is the atmosphere. He captures the sort of long term doom waiting at the end of the tunnel, and the sort of panic and scramble that comes with trying to explain things. There are elements of class, and how it infects the way people of different strata would feel or react to the event. It also feels very much of the Bush Administrations time, the vague banality of evil mixed with open religious zealotry and the encroachment of the security state in our lives. It’s something that is very hard to bottle outside of it, but it lingers on every page with a menacing whisper.
And if there is one last thing that Wilson accomplishes with style, it’s rolling out the “big ideas.” Now, I am less a proponent of that being an important part of science fiction than I used to be, but sometimes I am lured by the lanternfish as much as the next nerd. And while they are featured in the book, Wilson is really good at writing in a way that deflects your attention away from them. Not in the sense that he’s hiding them, but more like looking a gift horse in the mouth sort of way. Big things are tried, and the results are never what the character’s expect. Snippets of the world slowly decaying as vast amounts of resources are spent “solving the problem,” give pause to some of the grander events. Espionage also undercuts some of these moments, so that the book doesn’t just run on the ideas alone. It’s a precarious balance, but Wilson saunters along the rail thin catwalk with the competence of an expert.
Spin sits in a weird place for me. It is an incredibly well thought out and thorough look at how the world might respond to a tear in the agreed upon fabric of reality. It has refreshing moments and it is chock full of ideas. And while it does complete its own story, it feels thematically incomplete. I was left a little empty by the ending, to the point where I needed to voraciously read the sequels to see if Wilson closes the gaps my mind created. Spoiler alert: don’t read the sequels if you’re looking for the same magic of the first book. They fall into a specific trap that I won’t really elaborate on, but I think Spin can exist entirely on its own. It truly is an astonishing book that accomplishes a lot within a smaller page count than one would expect. It does some of the best exploration of an event that spans decades without feeling it has worn out its welcome. It also has one of my favorite endings for a side character that I’ve read in a while. So if you want big 2000s energy in your next science fiction read, give Spin a whirl.
Rating: Spin – 8.0/10