Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
Tor, New York, 2005, 364pp, $25.99, h/b, ISBN 0-765-30938-6
One night a few years from now the stars go out. Or so it appears to three young people in the garden of 'The Big House' in Washington DC. Jason and Diane Lawton are 14, their father a pioneer in a fledgling communications technology and junior Washington power player. Together with Tyler, son of E. D. Lawton's former business partner, the trio are inseparable. Narrated by Tyler, Spin chronicles the complex relationship between the three over the next several decades and three billion years.
The stars haven't gone out. Rather, with parallels to Greg Egan's Quarantine, the Earth has been enclosed from the wider universe. The event gradually comes to be known as the Spin; the enclosing 'barrier' is permeable to sunlight, which is being processed and filtered to create a perfect image of the real sun. And solar radiation has to be filtered because in the universe outside time is flowing 100 million times faster than on Earth. The Spin can only be the deliberate action of a vastly advanced and powerful intelligence, the evidence of such entities being entirely implicit in their actions, such that they are dubbed the 'Hypotheticals'. So the scene is set for a hard science fiction story almost as much about faith as science, for might not the 'Hypothetical' intelligence be God, the world in the End Times on the edge of Apocalypse.
Tyler becomes a doctor and is sufficiently an everyman to provide a clear reference point, the still centre of the spinning world, for Robert Charles Wilson's literate, educated readership. Tyler loves Diane, and his feelings are not unreciprocated, but Diane embraces an emergent hedonistic Christianity called New Kingdom, marries and moves far away. Jason proves to be a scientific genius, and is soon a leading figure in the US government's investigation of the Spin and the Hypotheticals, devising an ingenious plan taking advantage of the time differential to terraform and colonise Mars.
While maintaining an intermittent, distant friendship with the faith driven Diane, Tyler becomes the personal physician to the scientifically motivated Jason, the three friends a world in microcosm, so much so that what follows might be dismissed as didactic, were the characters and struggles not so humanly and realistically depicted. And as the years pass the ever-expanding sun beyond the Spin barrier promises to gradually making the Earth uninhabitable, civilisation begins to decay and Jason is beset by a chronic, progressive disease extrapolated from MS.
This personal epic unfolds with rich imagination, laced with a powerfully emotive sense of impending fate (complete with explicit references to On The Beach). Occupying perhaps one seventh of the page count are intriguing intermittent chapters set time a little further into the future: Tyler and Diane are fugitives from the American administration, hiding in Indonesia, where Tyler injects himself with a drug the benefits of which are uncertain, but which might destroy his memory ... these sections are, probably entirely coincidentally, reminiscent of Christopher Priest's The Affirmation.
Spin is the fifth novel I have read by Robert Charles Wilson, and by far the best. The book is a marvel of construction on so many levels, the diverse parts gradually brought together with the skill of a master so that the whole resonates with rare complexity and beauty. It is a first rate hard science fiction novel filled with strong ideas and bold, original extrapolation, based on a startling premise which works effectively on the level of pure story but also functions as a powerful metaphor for the inevitability of both individual and species mortality. Yet Spin is more besides; it is a moving story about several kinds of love, a complex and mature examination of relationships and motivations, a realistic drama of political and social upheaval, a tense and gripping thriller. It is refreshing in featuring a scientist hero who may be able to save the world but sometimes cannot stand-up unassisted due to his disability. And Spin is written in such beautiful, expressive and poetic language I found myself repeatedly stopping simply to linger over a phrase, to savour the eloquence of the prose.
I predict Spin will be soon be on every significant science fiction award shortlist; it would be a worthy winner of any trophy. Beyond that Spin is the ideal book to give to friends whose only knowledge of sf comes from Hollywood. Indeed, in a rave Washington Post review Paul Di Filippo has already found Spin guilty of literature. I will certainly feel fortunate to read a better new novel of any sort this year. Sometimes guilty pleasures are the best.
This article first appeared in Vector 248. Back issues of Vector are available from