by Robert Charles Wilson
Published by Tor
320 pages, 2005
The Night They Watched the Stars Disappear
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
While all fiction is part of the realm of imagination, science fiction and fantasy really has ownership of it. It's a delight to come across a startlingly new idea in a science fiction novel, as well as a compellingly told story.
Spin tells the tale of a vastly different future. A future that changed overnight when all the stars disappeared and the sun was replaced by a fake sun which maintained a day but altered everything else. There's a barrier now between the planet Earth and the rest of the universe, a barrier put up by what appears to be an unknown intelligence, using unknowable science. All the satellites that circled the planet fell to Earth and showed bizarre signs of aging, as if everything was going faster "out there."
Inside this large and extraordinary story is the story of people, of course. Some try to "fix" things, or at least try to comprehend what made things change. They wonder how the sun can be dying and how can things have sped up so much that our planet will die millions of years before we knew would be the case. Other people seek spiritual solace. They look for explanations and behave as if it's the end of days. Some try to live in a sort of denial, functioning as if nothing were different. You can't help but read Spin and wonder which category you'd fall in. After all, it's one of those "say you only had X time left to live?" questions only this time, it's "say everyone only had X time left?"
The people we get to know best in the story are Tyler, Jason and Diane. Tyler, the putative protagonist grew up next door to the Lawton siblings, who live at "the Big House" (said without irony, but comparisons to prison buildings aren't completely silly). Tyler's father, E.D. Lawton's good friend, died young and E.D. offers help to Tyler's mother -- never without strings and heavy-handed reminders of how good he's being to the Duprees. Jason is the heir apparent to his father's industry and genius. Diane is not very important to her egocentric creep of a father, as only a girl. Their mother's main character trait appears to be alcoholism. Tyler is clearly in love with -- or at least, smitten with -- Diane from an early age.
Years pass after the night they all watched the stars disappear. Jason has become the head of a company/think tank that might save the world as they know it. The unknown beings that saved Earth by putting up the barriers have not shown. Meanwhile attempts to extend the life of the human race by seeding Mars (this confuses me) so that some descendants of Earth's humans can find a way out have gone ahead. Diane, meanwhile, seems to be finding solace in faith, in one or more of the various belief systems that cropped up after everything changed.
There's much here to fascinate but at times, Wilson seems to be going through some motions. He's best at the big picture, I think and the stunning developments of this particular future. But Tyler seems to coast through much of his life. He becomes a doctor and without any real purpose, he becomes Jason's doctor and the medical staff person at Jason's big company. The two are never friends, although when Jason exhibits symptoms of a new, hard-to-treat MS ("regular" MS is treatable in this tale, but there are new resistant types) he trusts Tyler to treat him medically and insists that no one know; he must continue working, primarily to outdo his father.
Jason might be E.D.'s heir but he's also his competitor. This is a trite old line. Tyler doesn't have a lot of life to him; he seems to drift, never questioning why he took this path or that one, not really fighting for his place. He still cares deeply for Diane but she married a religious fanatic, one who doesn't want books in the house, who's wholly into little church schisms that mean little or nothing when described. If Diane believes, it's not made clear. As a result, she comes across as a doormat. When Tyler asks what she believes, she constantly quotes Simon, her husband, and never uses a phrase like "I think." It's very difficult to see the attraction, or indeed, to get Diane, and it's pretty important to do so. There are discussions of church schisms between meaningless factors (meaningless because the author never describes what the Tribulationsists or Dispensationalists believe so we have no understanding of the issues) but it's also frustrating because Tyler will talk with Diane who will say "I'm sure you saw it on the news" apparently believing her world is, for the most part, bigger than it is. Tyler never seems to respond to her, leading the reader to conclude she's deluded about her importance in the world and that, for his part, Jason is incapable of conversing with any seriousness with this woman he cares about. I don't expect Tyler to go into soliloquies about the meaning of life, but nothing seems to matter to him or truly affect him. Why does he do what he does? He's aimless and seemingly without heart or soul.
The story would have worked just as well -- or indeed, better -- for me had it been told simply chronologically, instead of shifting between past and present. Wilson's very capable of writing tension and there's enough challenge in the story as it is. What has happened? Who did this; what are the artifacts seen out in space? The basics of all stories -- the "what happens next" -- is exciting enough without the multiple cuts back and forth in the time line.
Does the book work? That depends on what you want out of a science fiction novel. The excitement, the world design, the politics, the science are there and are strong. The lack of real insight into the characters, however -- Diane's rather one-dimensional personality and adherence to some rather creepy religious fanaticism and Tyler's astonishing lack of desire or passion or depth is disappointing. It might not have been so noticeable, but this is a book that delves into details of many things, so that the gaps starts to show after a while and you wonder why you don't know what Tyler, or Jason actually think about something. Instead, the lead character just drifts along.
If story drives your reading, you'll get more satisfaction from Spin than if character beckons you, I think. Wilson is clearly talented, no question. But the people in Spin often left me frustrated and baffled. They faced a stunning future, a crisis none of us can imagine, and often showed a distinct lack of intellectual curiosity or even personal warmth. Scientific investigation and explanation worked well, human interaction often did not. While Spin is definitely interesting to read, it was often difficult to care what happened to the people within. | August 2005
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.