Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
In my review of Tomorrow: Science Fiction and the Future, I briefly touched on the parallels between the Cold War era apprehension over thermonuclear war and our current generation’s dance with global warming. We are acutely aware of our mortality, as a species, and the science fiction of these eras reflects that. Yet while some of the evidence of global warming has hit the front page—and been met with all the attendant scepticism and political controversy that makes for excellent sound bites—it is, for the most part, a slow global catastrophe. It is not flashy like the detonation of atomic bombs. It is gradual, and that makes it all the more dangerous. We march closer and closer to the point of no return, pushing our luck and pushing the environment. “Just a little more,” we say—but one day, we’ll ask for a little more, and no more will be forthcoming.
As a species, we are shortsighted. Nuclear war can end the world in a day; global warming will do it over a lifetime. It’s difficult for us to understand what that means, to view the planet on the scale of geological time—and it’s that scale that we might need if we are to maintain this planet. We could very well need the types of planet-spanning engineering we see deployed in Spin, both by the Hypotheticals and by humans. But here and now, it’s just so easy for those of us who are exposed to evidence of global warming only through secondhand reports and media snippets to draw in our heads and say, “We’ll deal with it eventually.”
With Spin, Robert Charles Wilson contrives a way to bring the environmental crisis to a head in our generation. Through the wonders of relativity and time dilation, time passes faster beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Protected by a membrane eventually known as the Spin, life proceeds on Earth as usual—except that, once the time dilation effect becomes public, everyone has to come to terms with the death sentence this means for the planet. Because in about forty years from the inception of this phenomenon, five billion years will have passed outside—and the Sun will have expanded to the point where it swallows Earth. Suddenly, the end of the world is a much more tangible thing.
The reactions to this event are as diverse as the number of humans on the planet, and watching them is one of the most pleasurable parts of Spin. Millions flock to millennial cults that declare the Spin as a sign of the End Times, of the Second Coming, of some New Age transition to an alternative form of existence. Many go on about their lives as if nothing has changed—because, aside from not being able to see the stars at night, nothing much has changed. This becomes increasingly difficult as the planet’s deadline draws near and the Spin membrane begins acting strange—if one believes there is no tomorrow, then suddenly those instincts of rational self-preservation don’t seem to matter much any more.
Finally, of course, there are those who seek to understand the Spin and the Hypothetical entities who have instantiated it. At the centre of this group is Jason Lawton, one of the novel’s main characters but also one who is inaccessible to the reader. Instead, Wilson introduces Tyler Dupree as Watson to Jason’s Sherlock (he’s even a medical doctor!). The relationship reminds me a little of that between Adam and Julian in the other Wilson book I’ve read (indeed, re-reading that review, it seems I use the same literary allusion—how repetitive of me). As with Julian Comstock, I reluctantly conclude that this third-party, uninitiated narrator works well for Spin—I say reluctantly because I have some reservations.
Tyler is distant from the real action in this book. His career as a physician is convenient for several reasons, but none of them allow him to conjecture the properties behind the Spin or participate in the design process for the replicators. So all this happens behind the scenes, with Jason filling Tyler (and therefore us) in on the details. I suppose Jason wouldn’t make a very good narrator—he is too clinical, too close to the problem, too obsessed even. And Tyler is a good foil for Jason, not to mention someone through whom Wilson can deliver massive quantities of scientific explanation. In all these respects Tyler is essential to the success of Spin—but it seems to come at the price of pushing the most interesting parts of the book away from the main narrative. I think I preferred how Nancy Kress uses multiple limited third-person perspectives, some following scientists and others laypeople, in Probability Moon and its sequels.
The best parts of Spin are all in the background. This includes the reactions, which I mentioned above, as well as all the exposition that eventually bubbles up to the surface. Let’s face it: the only reason to keep reading the book is to find out who initiated the Spin event and why the entity or entities responsible would do it in the first place. And the most valuable thing about this book is not actually part of the book at all—rather, it’s the thoughts and ideas that one generates as one reads. This is true, I think, of literature in general, although it might be most obvious in science-fiction novels with a tradition of Big Ideas.
I rather liked the explanation that Wilson delivers for the cause of the Spin. It hearkens back to the idea of the meme: at some level, the Von Neumann ecology that the Hypotheticals turn out to be are using the Spin to ensure the expansion of their own ecology. Von Neumann machines are thus memes that we, as sentient beings, have been manipulated into transmitting, much like we transmit cultural memes and, some might argue, genetic memes. Similarly, Jason’s rant about how we are all just machines running various operating systems—and his new operating system has developed a bug—seems very appropriate in today’s app-obsessed technology climate. Like any good science-fiction author, Wilson dangles tantalizing things that aren’t ideas so much as crumbs or seeds of an idea. It reminds me of the nascent cellular technology in The Dervish House.
So this is a novel pregnant with potential in the best possible way. Wilson delivers a coherent and complete story but leaves us with lingering possibilities, loose ends that round out the work rather than detract from it. It it is a little too long. Some of the minor characters, like E.D., seem to be struggling to be three-dimensional but never quite make the grade. But Spin aims quite high and achieves most of what it sets out to do; any problems it has are ultimately quite little compared to the experience it provides. The front cover of my edition, aside from having this horrible generic whirlpool design, has a blurb reading, “The best science fiction novel so far this year.” Seriously? So far? What kind of pathetic bet-hedging is this, Rocky Mountain News? Now, I’m not certain I’d go so far as to call it the best science-fiction novel of the year or declare worthy of its Hugo win—but its competition would have to have been very, very stiff to make it a race worth watching. Spin is not quite sublime, but it’s still an excellent exemplar for how science fiction can shine.