Robert Charles Wilson has a knack for starting stories with a bang. In Darwinia, for instance, Europe disappears. Spin is no different: a shield suddenly spreads around the Earth, blocking humanity from the universe. What’s striking about Wilson’s work, however, is that Spin is as much concerned with the human impact of its story as its science. It asks not just why has the Spin happened, but what impact does it have when people suddenly see the stars go out?
Spin starts with three children, twins Diane and Jason Lawton and their friend Tyler Dupree, who one night see the stars go out. At first they don’t know what’s happened, but soon the world realises that a shield has mysteriously appeared around the Earth. The “Spin” still allows life to continue, but outside the Spin time seems to be accelerating – so much so that for the next 30-odd years, 300 billion years will pass in the outside universe. Spin follows Tyler, Jason and Diane through these 30 years, showing the human reaction to the Spin, a mix of panic, hope, awe and fundamentalism that creates a very different world when the Spin finally drops.
I was impressed reading Spin. Wilson isn’t an author that I’m overly familiar with, but I can see in Spin why so many people enjoy his work. Wilson’s ideas have a huge scope, from the Spin itself to terraforming Mars and a drug that elevates a person’s intelligence; yet for how epic his ideas are, Wilson never loses sight of his characters either. At its heart Spin is a very human story, one that creates human situations out of scientific events. Tyler, Jason and Diane spend the novel trying to find ways of understanding what has happened to their world. Jason escapes into science, creating projects to explore the limitations of the Spin, while Diane finds religion and meaning in an otherwise bleak life. Tyler hovers somewhere between them both, using their friendship as his anchor against the Spin. And beyond them the world itself struggles to find understanding. At first people ignore the Spin before panic and fear set in, giving rise to numerous cults, violence and mass-suicides. It’s this sense of reality in the novel that transcends Spin beyond ordinary science fiction; it’s as much a psychological novel, focusing on the human condition.
Spin is beautifully written as well. Wilson’s prose is easily accessible, yet expertly crafted; it flows even while describing the science that makes the Spin possible (no easy feat) and some of the narrative is so graceful, so subtle, that it lingers at the back of your mind. There’s one passage in particular where Tyler watches the Lawton’s lawn being trimmed, thinking how the blades had “arisen over centuries” while outside the Spin “empires rose and fell”; that passage stayed with me for the rest of the novel. The way Wilson depicts religion is interesting as well. The New Kingdom Christians Diane becomes involved with are very much a cult, but despite their Ekstasis, they’re not some completely bizarre extremist sect; rather, they’re trying to make sense of the changes in the world, finding contentment in their faith. Again it feels realistic, showing belief, fanaticism and the politics behind faith, and makes Diane’s storyline more than just a counterbalance to Jason’s pursuit of the Spin.
To say that I was impressed by Spin isn’t to say that it’s perfect, though. On the whole I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the novel more than the last third; the tone of the novel changes slightly, the world getting stranger as more time passes within the Spin. One thing I wondered about as well was why Wun Ngo Wen would have brought photos with him from Mars; they’re supposed to be digitized, but the Martians are many millennia advanced from humans – that they would have any technology that could still interface with our own seems a stretch. Also some of the politics between Jason and his father, fighting for control of Perihelion, feels more stretched-out than necessary.
Still, Spin is greater than its flaws. It’s a novel as much about people as science and that’s something there isn’t much of in science fiction. It’s also a timely examination of human reaction and fear (some could see the Spin as a parable for 9/11, an event that changes the world forever in only a moment) and with so many layers it’s easy to see why Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Highly recommended.