Shortlists and awards are wonderful for an author. Yet from the reader’s standpoint, isn’t the real test of a book whether you think it’s time well spent? Robert Charles Wilson, one of a growing contingent of excellent Canadian science fiction authors, meets that test with his latest novel, Spin.
Wilson has been nominated three times for the Hugo Award for best novel (Darwinia in 1999, The Chronoliths in 2002, and Blind Lake in 2004). Darwinia and Blind Lake won the Prix Aurora award, Canada’s top SF award, for best long form work in English. He’s also been a finalist (A Hidden Place, 1986; A Bridge of Years, 1991) for, and won (Mysterium, 1994), the Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished science fiction books published in the US as a paperback original.
Despite these credentials, you wonder if Wilson can pull off what he proposes. Spin’s premise would be daunting for any writer. One night the stars and moon disappear and the next day’s sun is a featureless disc. The reason? Someone or something unknown has placed a barrier around the Earth that has slowed the passage of time dramatically compared to the rest of the known universe. For each tick of a second hand on a terrestrial clock, 3.17 years passes outside the barrier. That means about 100 million years elapse outside for each year on Earth. At that rate, within roughly 40 years the Sun will basically consume the Earth.
Then, Wilson opts for a potentially hackneyed character set. Jason and Diane Lawton are twins, the children of a well-to-do industrialist. They live in “the Big House” on their father’s estate, are “precociously intelligent” and attend a school for exceptional children. Their best friend is Tyler Dupree, the son of the housekeeper who lives in “the Little House” on the estate, a place she is granted because Lawton pere was in business with Tyler’s now-deceased father. Tyler is an average kid, attends public school and realizes he doesn’t quite fit in the world of the Lawtons.
The stars go out when the trio are entering their teens. That event, which becomes known as “the Spin,” marks a turning point for the entire world. Wilson alternates between Tyler’s narration of his situation some four decades later (denominated as 4 times 10 to the ninth power A.D., meaning the year 4,000,000,000) with his recollection of what transpired over the course of those Earth-time decades. And plenty transpires. Once humans realize the barrier is penetrable and the significant time difference inside and outside, they embark on a program to use the differential to attempt to terraform Mars. That project, headed by Jason in a company founded by his father, produces results beyond anyone’s imagination. A limited number of people come to learn of a stage of life “beyond adulthood,” and we ultimately discover the reason for the barrier.
Wilson’s main focus is the impact of the Spin on life. He uses Jason’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge—the why, how and who of the barrier and the results of the Mars projects—to examine scientific and political aspects and ramifications. Diane joins a new religious movement in a search for faith-based answers to these questions, allowing Wilson to explore the millennialism arising from knowing the end of the world is at hand and beyond our control. Tyler, a doctor thanks to the financial support of Jason and Diane’s father, remains somewhat the outsider, allowing him to serve as a fairly objective narrator of the impact on the Spin, although his connections with Jason and Diane give him insight others would not have.
Spin may not succeed on all counts and in all respects, largely because it tries to cover so much ground and so many ideas in relatively few pages. Additionally, some of the supporting cast—and occasionally the lead triumvirate—come off at times as a bit wooden. Overall, though, Wilson effectively explores this wide-ranging territory in a readable and enjoyable fashion, meeting a reader’s ultimate test.