Review of Spin by Robert Charles Wilson


This Hugo Award winner of 2005 brought back some interesting echoes of a book I’d read in 2009 – Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, where the crew are trapped inside a space ship travelling through time to the end of the universe.

spinThe time is the day after tomorrow, and three adolescents – Diane and Jason Lawton, twins, and their best friend, Tyler Dupree – are out stargazing. Thus they witness the erection of a planet-spanning shield around the globe, blocking out the universe. Spin chronicles the next 30-odd years in the lives of the trio, during which 300 billion years will pass outside the shield, thanks to an engineered time discontinuity. Jason, a genius, will invest his celibate life in unravelling cosmological mysteries. Tyler will become a doctor and act as our narrator and Jason’s confidante, while nursing his unrequited love for Diane, who in turn plunges into religious fanaticism.

Told in first person POV through Tyler’s viewpoint, we have a ringside seat into the fractured society caused by the shield and echoed in its impact on the three main characters. Wilson manages to keep the narrative bouncing between a social commentary on the unfolding science fiction events driving the story, as well as giving us the protagonist’s personal journey. It is a clever trick to pull off and one that he manages with deft skill.

However, the fractured narrative timeline means the reader has to stay sharp – there were occasions when I had to flip back a couple of pages to ensure complete understanding of what was happening. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation. Some books are light enough to be able to skim through without paying absolute attention – and this isn’t one of them.

Wilson’s excellent handling of the main characters gives us a real sense of their emotional damage, alongside the consequences for near-future society of this immense happening. I wasn’t too sure about the Martian, however. While I had a vivid image of his odd physical appearance, the sense of ‘otherness’ Wilson was striving to portray seemed to get rather swallowed by the events cascading around his sudden arrival. However, this is a picky point.

Spin does exactly what a well-written science fiction book should – presents an interesting technological issue, creating plenty of drama, while recording the reactions of the main protagonists and addressing some thought-provoking conclusions or themes. Through Diane’s experiences, Wilson takes a hard look at what religion has to offer frightened humanity – and what worldwide fear can do to civilisation. Somewhat predictably, religion doesn’t come off very well, but Wilson is adept at giving us snapshot views of how the world is coping, without holding up his narrative with pages of info dumping.

His handling of the alien shield encompassing Earth was convincing enough to suspend my disbelief throughout the novel – even to the jaw-dropping and frankly improbable ending. What he captured very ably was the desperate search for answers – the why this was happening. All in all, an excellent read and a real treat for both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sci-fi fans.

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