Review of Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin Cycle


Spin cycle. Yes, it was a pun.  Sue me.

After binge reading both the Ringworld and Fleet of Worlds sagas, I jumped straight into another famous science fiction multi-volume epic: Robert Charles Wilson‘s Spin books.

It was a confusing transition for me.  I had intended to write my review of Fleet of Worlds right away, with that saga’s virtues fresh in my mind.  At the time, I was willing to forgive those books their weak writing for the quality of the hard SF that they embodied.  But Wilson’s Spin was just so impressive, that I fear my opinion of the Fleet of Worlds books diminished in comparison.

Wilson’s cycle comprises three books. The first, the titular Spin, is a celebrated, Hugo award-winning tale.  Its inevitable sequel, Axis, was well received.  And the absolute culmination of the story (really, it’s quite final) is called Vortex.

Wilson is roundly celebrated for being a rare bird in the SF circles, an author whose focus really is so-called hard science-fiction (stories that rely on the technology or fictional science as the heart of their narrative), but who does so through the prism of supremely well explored and fully realized characterizations.

So let’s get that out of the way. Wilson, as a science fiction writer, is one of the better characterizers. In my experience, SF reviewers don’t have much of a track record in literary fiction. So what passes for excellent character building in the SF world is actually fairly mediocre literary writing.

But that’s not what intrigued me about the Spin books. In fact, to be honest, Wilson’s heavy reliance on the personal experiences, perspectives and motivations of his characters in many ways slowed down the development of truly epic narrative.  This is especially true of the second book, Axis, which is a serviceable sequel that really fails to unveil much of the mysteries introduced in his larger canvas.

But I get ahead of myself.  Clearly, I’m struggling to explain the qualities of these three books.  They are good.  One of them (the first) is actually quite excellent.  And another of them (the third) is…. I flail for an appropriate word… ambitious.  I mean that in the best way possible.

So here’s the story… and it’s a good one.  One fine summer evening, around present day, the sky disappears.  Well, not exactly.  It turns out that some kind of membrane has been wrapped around the Earth, blocking out the stars and filtering the sun such that it is a source of heat and light, but nothing more.  All our satellites fall from orbit. For all intents and purposes, all of humanity is segregated from the universe.

Who has done this? Why? How do we respond?

The plot thickens as space prob launches confirm that not only is the Earth physically segregated, we are also temporarlly segregated.  For every year that passes on Earth, a staggering 100 million years or so passes outside of the membrane, which Wilson for some reason calls the “spin.”

I really never figured out why it was called “spin”. It’s a membrane.  I don’t get it. I also don’t get why the sequel was called “axis”, and the conclusion “vortex.”  Despite how good these books are, the choices for titles in many ways diminishes their quality –makes them sound like space operas.

And this tale is not a space opera.  If anything, it’s a human mystery.  An extraterrestrial force has done something to our world, something grand and unavoidable, something that forces us to accept that we are not alone and that we are profoundly vulnerable. It is a moment of deep existential contemplation.  The premise alone is worth reading the first book.

Spin is told in a flashback manner, told from the perspective of a protagonist who is close to the key elements of the narrative, but who is not critical to them.  In this sense, it is not a traditional narrative structure: there is no hero per se, as our protagonist does not truly affect the events that happen around him.  In some ways, his friend, Jason Lawton, the genius who has insights into the motivations of the extraterrestrials is the true hero.

There are two elements to Spin that I found quite impressive.  The aforementioned flashback format I usually find tiresome and twee.  There’s a conceit among some writers that “it’s not about the destination, but the journey”.  This is true for the most part, but it should not be confused for a licence to ignore or give away the ending to a story.

Spin did not give away its ending.  Rather, the future from which the story is told unfolds gradually and grippingly.  The effect is that the reader eagerly eats up the journey to get to this thinly sampled destination.

The second element of Spin that I found so compelling, beyond its fantastic premise, is an important plot point: that humans decided to use their temporal exclusion to achieve great things over eons that really consumed a few months of lived time.  Specifically (spoilers!) I’m referring to the terraforming and colonizing of Mars.  Since time on Earth is progressing so much faster than the rest of the Universe, Mars is terraformed, settled, and one hundred thousand years of human evolution are completed on the red planet in a matter of short years of subjective time on Earth.

What a mind blowing concept.

The second book, Axis, takes us on a more personal journey as excrutiatingly little is added to the overall mystery of the Spin universe.  But it was a necessary stopgap to get us to…

The third and final book, Vortex. I struggle with Vortex.  It is not the science fiction masterpiece that Spin was,  But is just so ambitious that I have to give it its due.

Vortex is told in parallel in two epochs: present day and ten thousand years into the future.  Like the previous books, it is a personal tale that spends much time on the personal motivations of the protagonists, as if to suggest that the grander mystery that underlines the tale is irrelevant when compared to the complexity that is the human experience; a message that I do not find unpalatable.

But Vortex ends with a satisfying exposition of the transgalactic mystery that began the saga.  And that, frankly, is the best descriptor of this well written, though imperfect, grand tale: it is satisfying.  This is surprising, because given the grandness of its scale, it seemed unlikely that any resolution was possible.

It’s like a story beginning with positing the question, “Does God exist?” Wilson manages to avoid answering the question by doing everything but.





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