Thursday, August 04, 2005

Robert Charles Wilson: Spin

Robert Charles Wilson's Spin is a science-fiction novel. As such, it is far better than either Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days or John Twelve Hawks's The Traveller.

In Spin we have characters who are convincing as rounded individuals; in The Traveller the characters are pure cardboard. In Specimen Days the science fiction scarecly rises above the talking-squid level, but in Spin one feels that the writer actually knows what he is talking about and everything that is described could, all too easily, come about.

That said, both Specimen Days and The Traveller will far outsell Spin. In fact, both those books will probably shift a million, in various editions, worldwide. How many will Spin sell? Well, I'm not party to Wilson's royalty statements, but if you told me 10,000 I wouldn't be too surprised.

So, life isn't fair then? Nope. And there is nothing about the past history of publishing to suggest that talent, sound narrative technique, and a gripping story are guaranteed to get you the kind of hype which is needed to propel a book into the bestseller list.

Robert Charles Wilson is no beginner in the business of writing novels. He has written twelve so far, with more to come. He has won a variety of prizes for these, and for his short stories. He was born in California and moved to Canada when he was nine; he seems to be very proud of being Canadian. Sadly, his official web page does not give us a biography: I would like to know about his education, because to me (a non-scientist) he seems to write with authority about a number of scientific and technological theories and developments.

Spin is narrated by Tyler Dupree, and it is mainly concerned with Tyler and his relationship with a pair of twins, Jason and Diane. And, although this is a longish book (364 pages), Wilson limits his focus largely to these three and their families and friends. Smart move, and a sign that the author knows what he is about.

The book begins roughly twenty years into the future. One night, Tyler and his two friends are looking at the sky -- and the stars go out. In due course, it emerges that the earth has been covered by a kind of protective blanket, put there (the earth scientists deduce) by some alien power.

The real sun is replaced by an artificial sun, and life goes on. But gradually, scientists discover that time outside the earth's protective blanket is passing immensely faster than it is beneath it. In particular, the sun is aging, in terms of earth time, at massive rate. The scientists calculate that, in some forty years' time, the sun will die.

All of this is conveyed to the reader far more convincingly than it can be in a brief summary. But while that particular part of the plot is interesting in itself, it is not the author's main concern.

His main concern -- and I hesitate to say this, in case it puts some readers off -- is the love story between Tyler Dupree and the female twin, Diane. In fact, what we have here -- and again I risk putting you off completely -- is a classic romance. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again.

Although I have read a fair amount of science fiction, I cannot claim to be an expert on it. But I would be surprised if anyone told me that there is a science-fiction writer around who handles people better than Wilson. Certainly I have not come across anyone. What we have here is a classy mainstream novel (I wouldn't insult it by calling it literary), set within an entirely convincing science-fiction framework. This is an unusual combination, and one which deserves the highest praise.

There are passages in this book where the author achieves that hypnotic effect on the reader which comes about when a writer knows precisely what he wants to do, and has both the literary technique and the psychological insight to achieve it.

This is, in short, the novel that Michael Cunningham might have written if only he knew any science, and if he had a better understanding of human nature. And for once it would have deserved its accolades and million-copy sale.

Unfortunately, a search of the database on Publishers Marketplace reveals that, while Cunningham has pulled down 26 reviews in major US newspapers, there are none listed (so far) for Spin.

I did, however, find one review in the Washington Post, where Paul di Fillipo says that the book may be, at last, an example of 'the long-anticipated marriage between the hard sf novel and the literary novel, resulting in an offspring possessing the robust ideational vigor of the former with the graceful narrative subtleties of the latter.... Neither the culture of art nor the culture of science is slighted. And isn't that the ideal definition of science fiction?'

Well, it's one such anyway.

Spin is highly recommended to anyone who likes thoughtful, literate, intelligent fiction -- never mind the genre.


Mark A. Rayner said...

Good review, and I think the comment from Paul di Fillipo is on the money, though I'd be a little more shy of calling it hard SF, just because it's so darned readable. I find lot of the hard SF part of the genre reads as though the writer is trying to impress me with his vast and superior understanding of the science -- I definitely didn't get that from SPIN.

I'd say it's Wilson's best to date, and that's saying a lot, because both Darwinia and The Chronoliths were great.

As a writer who aspires to the kind of craft that Wilson has, I'm a little deflated by the 10,000 number. But I suppose it's best to be realistic, isn't it?

However, I did see Wilson at a reading recently, and he mentioned that he was actually making a living writing fiction, so that bodes well.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I like your review. Spin sounds interesting to me, so do Wilson's other books; I'm going to read some of them.

Today at Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading blog, he posted a link to a Guardian article on Twelve Hawks. And I talked about taking The Traveler out of the library; the book's been sitting in my house since, unread. Won't bore you with those comments of mine here, but your opinions on it make me not want to bother opening up TT again! I'll feel bad though if I don't--I mean, I won't make judgments on its contents until I've attempted to read them in earnest. And knowing me, I'll probably want to put in my two-cents on TT sometime, somewhere....

Anonymous said...

A fine review, and one I enjoyed as I started reading the book yesterday and am about 2/3 of the way through. For anyone who doesn't read SF, but wants a way in, Robert Charles Wilson is an excellent way to start. Try Spin, or Blind Lake, or Darwinia, or Mysterium. Literate, clever, engaging and rich writing, and some of the real sense-of-wonder of classics SF.

Anonymous said...

1. You liked it! Yay!

2. I'm puzzled about you not finding evidence of reviews. As far as I know, Spin's been well reviewed. I'll forward your post to Publicity and ask them what's up.

3. I love working with Robert Charles Wilson.

--Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books

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Neil said...

Very interesting review... "Spin" sounds like a great book. I'll have to check that one out soon.

Thanks for the tip!

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Flights said...

Very interesting review. I will definitely check it out soon.

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