Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Review - Spin

by Robert Charles Wilson

2006 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

So much of science fiction revolves around mysteries. Books open with strange mysterious happenings and as the characters deal with them the reasons behind the weird event/alien artifact/unusual phenomena are (usually) revealed. This is a staple of science fiction in the style of John Campbell and the basic formula has persisted for more than sixty years. The problem usually is that the solution isn't half as interesting as the problem and readers can feel let down.

Spin isn't one of those instances.

In fact I can say it has the most interesting "solution" to a cosmic problem that I've ever seen. It's a concept that not only wraps the central mystery in the novel up in a nice little bow it also blows my mind with the possibilities where it could go from the ending.

One night the stars go away. The sun still hangs in the sky but the rest of the stars are simply gone. Thanks to satellites falling back to the ground it is found that time is passing on earth is passing hundreds of millions times faster than it is in the rest of the universe. An alien artifact has enclosed the world and it shields us from star light being blue shifted to a gamma ray burst and keeps the illusion of a normal day going. Anything that goes to high up is safely put back into the universe's normal time frame. Within just a few years of time within this barrier the sun will expand to initially render the earth uninhabitable and finally engulf the planet. If the barrier stays in place it will be the world's last generation.

Dealing with this are a family of industrialists in the style of the Rockefellers. The patriarch pins his hopes on his brilliant son to develop a solution while his daughter spirals out of control mirroring the rest of society which is dealing with the emotional impact of the effect. The story is told through the viewpoint of a family friend who grows up with the children and becomes one of the last doctors.

The book digs into every aspect of the time distortion that a reader may want as humanity struggles against it. Each option tried is more clever than the last and this is what Wilson does well in Spin. Every time you think he can't get more daring with his concepts he finds a new direction to go in. It makes Spin a gripping book.

Where he falls short is in the human drama. The human beings are much less interesting than the things that are going on around them. The family melodrama wears thin after a while and far too much of the book is dedicated to it. Do these characters seem familiar to you? Dominating father, son attempting to live up to him, daughter rebelling against her father and family, crusading doctor. There's little more to the characters than those broad descriptions I provided and they play out their story almost by rote.

And compounding that problem is Wilson's prose is dry as a desert. The sense of wonder that Spin contains is derived more from its big ideas than poetic descriptions. It's not atrocious writing, it just isn't particularly inspiring.

In the end I'd give Spin a hesitant recommendation. If you like the Campbellian science fiction where bold scientists work hard to deal with a phenomena then you'll definitely like Spin since it's one of the best examples of that particular branch of science fiction. If you prefer a deep search of the human condition then you probably will walk away more annoyed than happy with the novel. And if you fall somewhere between those two poles (as I do) then I suspect you'll enjoy the book with similar reservations.