SF Academy 05 – Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Just recently finished The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson, which I liked quite a bit. It reminded me of Spin in a superficial way, as if drafted from the same rough outline, with different details. You can always tell when an author has traveled in a certain part of the world because they start making all their characters visit that area so they have an excuse to sprinkle in details learned in their travels. In Wilson’s case, without knowing for sure, I’d wager he’s visited SE Asia.

In this one, the protagonist is a sort of hippie slacker living in very poor conditions in Bangkok, when a giant artifact from the future materializes nearby. This monument, the Chronolith of the title, announces a future victory by the conqueror Kuin, a name note yet known at the time of the story. This sudden “visitation,” constituting proof of a looming, threatening force, spreads fear throughout the world and causes societies to virtually all at once close up shop. In other words, most people become so fearful of something bad happening in the future they essentially give up twenty years before any conquering has even happened.

Because this is a Robert Charles Wilson book, the relationships are all haunted and broken (not saying that’s how Wilson’s own relationships are, but in the books I’ve read, his characters are all in that boat), and the parent-child relationships are especially tortured. It’s an engrossing story, though, as our protagonist gets caught up into an effort to understand the Chronoliths (because the one in Thailand is not the last to appear) and realizes his proximity to the first appearance gives him a sort of unavoidable connection to the entire drama of Kuin, attempts to prevent more monoliths, and those who worship Kuin (who doesn’t even exist yet) as all-powerful.

My first experience with reading Wilson’s work was Spin, probably his best book. While the others I’ve read have also been quite good, they’ve been at least a notch below that high point. I’d recommend this book if you’ve already read Spin and enjoyed it, but if you haven’t, then just read that one!

I love this writer, though, and plan to keep working through his books. Canadian sci-fi is strong these days! Next up, Blind Lake.

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.

Words Out: A New Hope

Most of these blog entries have been about books I’ve read recently, or crazy authors I’ve enjoyed, but my earlier-this-week blog entry “Words in, words out” said a bit about my own writing, at least the earlier stage of that.

So when we left off, I had left off my own fiction writing between the time I was almost thirty, and more recently (I’m forty-three now) when I’d decided I was interested in picking it back up.

I didn’t just grab a pen and paper, or computer word process, and get started spewing words. I spent quite a bit of time daydreaming and planning, re-reading some of my earlier work, and thinking about what kind of work I felt motivated to create. Those early stories (and novels and poems) were mostly straight “literary” fiction, that is, stories about people being serious, joking around, relating to each other, and… feeling ways about stuff. Some of them, the ones that remained interesting to me, were more experimental, or looked at reality through a different lens.


I thought about the books and stories I’d most enjoyed reading, simply as a reader, not as a writer comparing himself or looking for inspiration. Then I considered, aside from what I most enjoyed as a spectator of good writing, what sort of stories would it excite me to create?

I realized I wanted to create new worlds, different worlds from this real one, not only different in the sense of having imagined people in them, walking around and worrying about concerns exactly like the concerns of the people in this real world. I mean entirely different worlds, different concerns, different rules. I want to imagine wider possibilities. It excites me to imagine a future in which our world is different, things have changed in ways that are sometimes shocking, at least interesting.

In the end I decided I can write whatever I want but I also need to consider what kind of “markets” (a really seedy and overly commercial-sounding word, to most people, but one writers throw about and mean nothing worse by it than “places I might send my stories) to consider. That means slotting the work a genre and I guess I’d say we’re talking about Science Fiction here.


Now, the irritating ass-hole voice in the back of my mind complained a little bit. I mean the arrogant jerk who majored in Literature (big “L”) in college, and who, despite really loving Harlan Ellison and Frank Herbert and assorted others, still kinda felt like Science Fiction was a sort of less-serious, less-literary genre. This discussion has come up a few times before, on the Hypnos Forum (a discussion board related to my record label, Hypnos Recordings) where there are many sci-fi fans including one who’s an editor at Asimov’s. This came up before I was writing, and I was acknowledging that voice in the back of my own mind when it came to the regard of science fiction from a reader’s point of view, not as a writer. But I can’t help think back to it, and halfway try to talk myself out of getting involved in it, knowing that the little condescending, snobby voice is there in the back of my head.

Dangerous Visions

In the end, I decided the little voice can just get over itself, and I will follow what my gut tells me is right. The truth is, I get as excited about a good new science fiction movie as about any other kind of movie. Most of my favorite TV shows (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Star Trek, etc.) are science fiction. More and more, when I think about reading a book for pure enjoyment, I think of something like Greg Bear or Gregory Benford, or more recently Robert J. Sawyer or Stephen Baxter or especially Robert Charles Wilson. I’ve recently become infatuated with Greg Egan, only to find that at times his books are infuriatingly, willfully unfriendly to the reader… but I’m as excited to explore the rest of his work as I am about any other writer I can think of.


Undoubtedly I’ll write some things that sci-fi purists may look at and say “Hmm, not enough spaceships,” and I’ll have to figure out what to do with some of my stories. But when the first subjects I want to write about include artificial intelligence and robotics and life extension and simulated reality, and the environments I want to explore include the future Earth, outer space, and other planets, I become increasingly comfortable just settling into that genre and starting to explore.

I’ve written about fifteen stories in a very short time, some just a first draft, and a couple of them nearly finished. I’ve plotted out a connected story cycle, begun to lay-out one novel, and made notes toward a few other novel ideas. I’m writing better, more quickly, and with greater pleasure than at any time before, and I feel I’ve just started again. The things I’m writing now are more considered, more mature, and certainly more geared toward a readership outside of my own brain, than what I did when I was younger. I like the idea of having stories published at some point, but I’m also enjoying the process of getting the words out and then carefully re-working and polishing them, so I won’t hurry the whole “publication chase” aspect. It seems to me that if the writing is good, then the possibility of getting things into magazines will follow. I think it is a real flaw of many writers, certainly was a flaw of mine when I was younger, to push the whole “must get published, must get published!” overdrive with much greater energy and priority than what SHOULD be one’s primary motive, “must get better, must do the best work possible.”

Before too long I’ll start to be more specific about some of the things I’m working on and planning, and may even post a little word-blurb excerpt of actual written fiction, at some point. But the above gets us up to date, as far as the whole “Words Out” side of things.