SF Academy 02 – Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Last week I wrote about a very well-known, arguably classic, work of science fiction based on a big idea. In case you didn’t read my last post, SF Academy 01 – Ringworld by Larry Niven, I was disappointed with how that big idea was executed.

Today I’m going to focus on a more recently piece of “big idea” science fiction, one that was wonderfully effective by all measures. I’m talking about Spin, a novel from 2005 by Robert Charles Wilson.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (2005)

In Spin, we observe three young friends, the protagonist Tyler Dupree and his friends, Diane and Jason Lawton, who are brother and sister and whose father is a powerful and wealthy businessman. Soon there is a major event affecting the entire world: the stars disappear, and it is determined that Earth has been sealed off from everything outside by a sort of shield. The sun still appears to rise according to the same schedule, and give warmth and light to the Earth, but it’s not the “real” sun, more of a virtual projection.

Humanity scrambles to figure out what happened, who might have caused this, and there’s an apocalyptic feel as fear and hopelessness take hold. Many aspects of this change are considered, and we see how such a thing might affect religion, business, the focus of scientists, interpersonal relationships. All this wide-angle stuff is seen from the perspective of Tyler, who remains intimately connected to Diane and Jason even as their lives diverge. Eventually humanity gains a better sense of what’s happening and why, and Jason is at the center of these efforts, and this brings Diane and Tyler into closer proximity with the mystery of the “spin.” Tyler has always been infatuated with Diane, and he struggles to find a way to connect with her, and he also has difficulty relating with Jason, who is obsessed with the spin mystery to an unhealthy degree. The matter of the “spin,” what it means, who caused it, and how this unfolds is of course the heart of the novel and I won’t include spoilers here.

What’s interesting and unusual here is the degree to which Wilson keeps this an intimate, human story despite the grand scale of space and time covered by the events in the book. As wide as the scope becomes, everything is always filtered through the perceptions and responses of a small group of people we feel close to, and care about. Tyler himself is not drawn as clearly as Diane and Jason, but we understand Tyler’s feelings for his friends, and it makes the events of the plot more dramatic.

Spin won the Hugo award in 2006 and Wilson has indicated it’s the first book in a trilogy. The sequel, Axis, came out two years later, and it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor. I’ll review that one here soon.

This is a book that delivers on what I consider the ideal of science fiction literature, which is to explore big ideas, convey a sense of wonder, and do so on a human scale so that the story packs emotional impact. Wilson is a mature and sensitive writer, and delivers fantastic events on a massive scale, in a way that feels natural, human and real. It’s very possibly the best science fiction novel of the past decade, and I’d say Wilson is my favorite recent discovery as well.

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