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.