Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Original Publication Date: April 2005
I was twelve, and the twins were thirteen, the night the stars disappeared from the sky(12).
Three "precociously intelligent" children, bordering on their teen years, hang out in the basement, wander around outside, tease each other, light up a stolen cigarette, gaze at the night sky. Their activities feel familiar; they could be anyone. And all adolescents feel like the world will soon change forever.
A dark membrane embraces the earth, with only an artificial "sun" rising and setting to provide the necessary solar energy. Later that evening, some half-mad cosmonauts make a desperate emergency landing— which they swear they only attempted after a week of deliberation. Artificial satellites occasionally fall to earth, impossibly aged and battered.
Gradually, the human race learns that the end really may be near, or at least, nearer. We witness the events, and their impact on human society, from the perspective of three people who were children on the night the stars went black. Two grow up to be at the center of attempts to deal with the new reality, while the third becomes involved in religious movements which have developed in reaction to the Spin. Robert Charles Wilson's novel features a fantastic scenario, but familiar people react to it. He shortchanges the secondary characters somewhat, failing to round them out as much as he could, but the principals will resonate with most readers. Wilson understands the importance of apt detail to creating believable people and worlds.
"If the world doesn't come to an end in the next thirty or forty years," he said, "we may be facing disaster."
Good writing is less about high points than consistently doing something well. The social reactions to the Spin seem like the sorts of things the human race I know would do when faced with the previously-unimaginable. However bizarrely original the Spin itself may be, the human responses are not forced in a direction to make some point of the writer’s. The approach is refreshing, in a genre given to novels of ideas which, however entertaining and thought-provoking, often fail to engage our feelings.
It's not that Wilson avoids getting political; Spin is not parable, but certain events and characters parallel those found throughout human history, and of which we currently are experiencing no shortage. Religious fanatics, paranoic politicians, manipulative demagogues-- all dot the novel's landscape. Wilson will turn a satiric phrase their way, but when we meet them, they're not caricatures. Jason and Tyler work closely with captains of industry and politicians whose motives and actions, if not always laudable, seem entirely plausible. Diane becomes involved with extremist religious movements with which, it is fairly clear, Wilson has little sympathy, but neither she nor her fanatical husband become parodic.
And this novel certainly has ideas. One plan launched in the post-Spin society concerns Mars as a possible salvation for humanity. The glimpses we receive of that planet's hypothetical future history seem simultaneously fantastic yet-- in the context of this novel-- plausible.
Of course, the concepts with which Wilson deals make it difficult to completely avoid lengthy, expository passages, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying. As with most SF, this novel works best when he explores how his ideas affect his characters and society, and less well on those occasions when he subjects us to Infodump. I suspect some of the explanatory notes on matters astronomical could have been trimmed. Still, at their best, the expository passages can be entertaining and thought-provoking to read. Consider this portion of Jason's response to the question of why so many people do not believe the explanation for the darkening of the sky, years after it has been established:
Consider what we're asking them to believe. We're talking, globally, about a population with an almost pre-Newtonian grasp of astronomy.... To say anything meaningful about the Spin to those people, you have to start a long way back. The Earth, you have to tell them, is a few billion years old, to begin with. Let them wrestle with the concept of 'a billion years,' maybe for the first time. It's a lot to swallow, especially if you've been educated in a Moslem theocracy, an animist village, or a public school in the Bible Belt.... Cosmology 101, right? You picked it up from all those paperbacks you used to read, it's second nature to you, but for most people it's a whole new worldview and probably offensive to a bunch of their core beliefs. So let that sink in. Let that sink in, then deliver the real bad news (52).
More significant spoilers follow.
At its core, Spin has some familiar enough concepts for an SF novel: a potential world-ending scenario, aliens who tool about with earth’s history, life-prolonging drugs, and the colonization of Mars. The ending also relies on a genre cliché-- the Weird DevelopmentTM takes on an apocalyptic significance; a New Heaven and a New EarthTM are upon us. However, this novel’s premise limits the number of possible endings, and Wilson’s choice does not detract from the experience of reading this book.
The initial mystery will engage you, and the novel will continue to hold your attention as levels of explanation unfold. The characters learn what the Spin is, but then must attempt to discover the nature of the forces behind it. The novel also has its Martian plotline, and certain uncertainties about the motivations of the characters.
The novel also creates mystery through a fragmented time-structure in which we see both the events that follow the Spin and the experiences of certain characters some time later. One is extremely ill, both face unknown but clearly human pursuers, and everyone seems focussed on a new development, the Arch. Only gradually, as the two timelines connect, do we learn the significance of these matters.
I wish we had learned more about the novel's future history of Mars-- and the ending leaves us wanting more of the Arch. This novel creates the potential for sequels.
Perhaps these never will be written. Wilson has shown an inclination to spin new tales and follow new directions, and perhaps this novel ends as it should, at the beginning of new things. The reader must imagine what might happen next.
UPDATE: A sequel, Axis, appeared in 2007.
A variation of his review first appears at http://www.bureau42.com