by Henry Farrell on February 23, 2006

“Patrick Nielsen Hayden”: touts Robert Charles Wilson’s _Spin_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: ) as “one of the finest science fiction novels of the last decade” and he’s right; I finished the book yesterday, and was enormously impressed. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work for a long time,1 but as Patrick says, this is on a different level to his earlier work, good though it is. Its conceit is classic science fiction – the earth is suddenly and mysteriously enshrouded by a barrier which blocks off the stars. Inside the barrier, time passes far more slowly than in the outside universe; one year on earth is the equivalent of one hundred million years outside. A single generation is likely to see the death of the solar system. But Wilson doesn’t treat this set up as a classic SF problem to be “solved” (as in Poul Anderson’s somewhat similar but more conventional _Tau Zero_). Instead, he wants to examine how people react when they are forced to think in cosmological time,directly to confront the fact that just as they are mortal, so too is their species, their world, their sun and even the stars in the sky. It’s a wonderful, subtle book, a love-song to scientific curiosity, with some clever, canny things to say about the deep currents driving contemporary debates over science in the US (Wilson’s a Canadian, and comes at this from outside). Strongly, no _vehemently_ recommended.

1 I’ve a particular fondness for Wilson’s _Darwinia_ which begins when Cork disappears to be replaced by an alien jungle inhabited by feral predators. Skeptics might fairly ask how anyone could tell the difference.



Kieran Healy 02.23.06 at 11:12 pm

Skeptics might fairly ask how anyone could tell the difference.

It would be hard to tell all right — the new inhabitants would probably still be better hurlers than Tipperary, for instance, even without opposable thumbs.


schwa 02.23.06 at 11:26 pm

My fundamental problem with Spin — and the reason I just couldn’t grit my teeth and tolerate it all the way to the end — is that it revolves around ‘characters’ who have such an utter lack of depth or personality that they would be an insult to George Lucas. It’s not that I don’t understand what Wilson’s trying to do, but if he wants to write about how people react when the world is turned upside-down, he should populate his novel with some.


Randolph Fritz 02.24.06 at 1:36 am

oh, schwa, that’s unfair. But this is a mystical novel, for all that it is rationalized as science fiction and the characters stand in spiritual positions rather than have “character” in the usual literary sense. I think that’s actually fairly realistic, but it doesn’t follow the conventions of any genre; it doesn’t match the “realistic” novel or the sf novel.

For myself, believing as I do in an immanent spirituality, the book misses; I don’t think the gods are nanotech, despite Wilson and MacLeod.


Carlos 02.24.06 at 6:06 am

Henry, I ain’t saying this because I think PNH is too much in love with his own dudgeon and needs to be taken down six or eight pegs (although I do), but I think his editorial taste is way off on this one. It’s the same Wilson book I’ve read at least three times before, each time with a slightly different gimmick. Instead of Gnosticism or supercomputers rewriting the history of the Earth or time-travelling monuments or aliens with immortality elixirs, this time he goes for a veneer of hard science, borrowed half from Robert Reed, half from Frederik Pohl.

[counts] Make that at least four times before. [1]

Flat affect characters, a similar flatness in both physical and metaphysical speculation, and the same manufactured chord struck at the end. I won’t even get into the false exoticism.

That being said, RCW is a good writer — he doesn’t rely on the typical dumbass SF fan-pander toolkit — and Spin is an OK book. But come on, Henry.

[1] Maybe next time he could have the world mysteriously transform itself into crystal! Or show how a small town in Iowa deals with the world being taken over by a mysterious plant! Hm.


Dave F 02.24.06 at 6:39 am

Greg Egan’s “Quarantine” is a better book with the same idea. His hard science background is real.


Tom T. 02.24.06 at 9:01 am

Wilson’s Chronoliths was also excellent. It dealt plausibly with apocalyptic messages from 20 years in the future, and showed how society evolved as those 20 years then passed. Excellent characterization of a flawed narrator, too.


Barry 02.24.06 at 9:33 am

” Skeptics might fairly ask how anyone could tell the difference.”

Walk in, ask where you could get a pint of Guiness. If you’re given directions, it’s Cork. If you’re hit up for a pint, it’s Cork. If you’re mugged, it’s Cork. If you’re killed, it’s probably still Cork. If you’re killed, cooked and eaten, it might still be Cork. If you’re killed and eaten raw, it’s probably not Cork.


Hektor Bim 02.24.06 at 10:16 am

Darwinia was good until about the middle, when everything was effectively revealed and it was a hard slog through the rest of the book. For that reason, I count Darwinia as half of a very good book and half of a very bad book. Is Spin similar or different? If you liked Darwinia overall, I’m very worried that Spin is similar.


Jonathan 02.24.06 at 11:30 am

I haven’t read the Wilson book, but I would agree that Egan is remarkable: better conceptually than Bear and politically informed.


mds 02.24.06 at 2:32 pm

I haven’t read the Wilson book, but I would agree that Egan is remarkable: better conceptually than Bear and politically informed.

I generally agree, with the caveat that I don’t think he could write a good ending to a novel to save his life. “Wang’s Carpets” was a great short story, and most of Diaspora, the novel-lengthened version, was good, too. But there was no real ending. Schild’s Ladder fell flat at the end, too. So did Permutation City, which was also based on a much superior short story. Neal Stephenson, along with his awe-inspiring wordiness, also has displayed a problem with ending novels.

I’m currently reading Spin, so we’ll see. I would agree with hektor bim’s take on Darwinia. I haven’t read Chronoliths yet, and my feelings are mixed about The Harvest. On the one hand, I’m disappointed that the alien offer wasn’t more ambiguous from the reader’s point of view; one side of the issue was too clearly correct. On the other hand, Mr. Wilson is obviously interested in human responses to world-shifting events, and the book still worked on that level.


Henry 02.25.06 at 12:03 am

carlos – I’m aware that you have some sort of animus against PNH, although I’ve no idea what its basis is. I’d be grateful if you didn’t import it to the comments section. He’s a valued occasional commenter here, and grudge matches don’t make for good comments sections.

On the specifics of Wilson’s book – SPOILER ALERT – I think that it’s a lot better than either you or schwa give it credit for being. As Randolph says, it’s quasi-mystical – more like, say Childhood’s End or the City and the Stars than most other books. But it’s a lot more self-aware than either of those books of its relationship to genre. Here’s my idiosyncratic reading of what Wilson is trying to do with it (very likely wrong – I frequently am wildly off in my interpretations, but here goes). I think that this is a more subtle version of what Wilson was trying to do – and not really succeeding with – in Bios – interrogating the underlying logic of the stories we tell ourselves. The ending of Spin, as I read it, isn’t anywhere nearly as benign and happy as it seems. It’s clear that the Hypotheticals have a very different idea of how human beings and other individual based species flourish than do human beings themselves. They’re interested – as we are told in the end – in seeing how different species will mix, clash, assimilate, destroy each other – Jason more or less tells us this at the end. The benign spin (choice of words deliberate) that Tyler puts on this, is, I suspect, self-deception. The book is about the ways in which people try to escape from the harshness of the universe, the fact that not only are they going to die, but that everything they know will disappear. Jason seems to me to be the real hero of the book, because he is the only character who can face up to this, and celebrate it.

I’ve a pronounced dislike for Greg Egan’s work, based on reading Diaspora and some short stories. I found there to be something parched, starved and deeply unattractive about his understanding of human beings – personalities as engineering problems. May be idiosyncratic, but I know I’m not the only one with this reaction.


Jonathan 02.25.06 at 9:48 pm

Egan precisely does not have this problem, endemic to almost all the ‘hard’ sf genre, Henry, as you’ll see if you read Teranesia or Distress.


Matt McIrvin 02.26.06 at 10:13 am

I find Egan a fascinating writer; when he’s on, as in Permutation City and Diaspora, he does things nobody else even attempts to do. But I hesitate to recommend him to strangers because my tastes are deeply unusual, in that I actually like reading explorations into elaborately imagined alternate physical theory; I can’t imagine that most readers would. I sometimes get the uneasy feeling that he’s writing novels with physics and math PhDs as the entire target audience. I do think that in Schild’s Ladder he went a little too far in that direction and the imaginary physics began to overwhelm the storytelling, even for me.

In Teranesia he backed off a little from the high-powered ideation and wrote some of his most successful characters, which was great to see. But I thought it was also flawed by the ham-fisted unsubtlety of his satire on 1990s New Age mysticism and trendy academics; I was inclined to agree with a lot of what he was saying, but it was so overblown that it was hard to maintain suspension of disbelief.


Peter 02.26.06 at 11:21 am

First, the link to Making Light points to the wrong post, the one about Spin is this one. Second, I finished the book last week. While I liked it, I don’t see the point for all the hooplah. It had an interesting twist at the end, which I did like. It had too many apocolyptic religious fanatics, which we have too many of in RL.

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