Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin begins with a typical Wilson plot: a mysterious unexplained event has happened on Earth, and the inhabitants struggle to survive in the face of the changes caused by it. Immediately this reminded me of Darwinia and The Chronoliths, and I wondered if Wilson had gotten himself into a rut.

It was obvious early in the book that Wilson had two simultaneous concerns: the sfnal mystery he had created and the personal lives of his cast of characters. The book could very easily have become a character study under the guise of a science fiction novel, so the book’s success depended partly on his ability to make the personal story and sfnal story support each other rather than be independent entities.

Upon finishing Spin, I can safely say that Wilson did not show any signs of being in a rut, and the book’s two aspects were intertwined so well that the personal stories and the sfnal mystery were each totally dependent on the other.

The premise is that one night a “membrane” appears around the Earth, blocking out the stars totally. Shortly thereafter it is determined that time is passing at a rate ten billion times faster outside the membrane than it passes inside it. This type of apocalyptic event obviously causes major disruptions in life on Earth, but Wilson wisely concentrates on a small group of people involved in studying the membrane and trying to learn both its cause and the identity of the beings who created it.

There are three main protagonists in Spin: twins Jason and Diane Lawton, children of scientist and government insider E.D. Lawton, and their best friend Tyler Dupree, who lives with his mother in a small house on their property since his mother is their parents’ housekeeper. The three youngsters take slightly different paths in life due to the effects of the membrane:

1. Jason, a scientific genius much like his father, becomes the scientific head of Perihelion, a government-affiliated company leading the studies of the membrane;

2. Tyler becomes a physician and eventually Jason’s chief physician at Perihelion, his most important task being to keep Jason functioning after he develops a variant of MS;

3. Diane becomes involved with apocalyptic cultists who view the membrane as a sign of the approaching end of the world; she marries a wide-eyed zealot named Simon who totally dominates her life.

One of Perihelion’s projects in trying to understand the membrane is terraforming Mars and seeding it with human life, knowing that the time differential outside the membrane will cause human life to develop on Mars at a much faster rate than on Earth, so that a few decades later highly-intelligent Martians might be able to interpret the membrane. Thus we are introduced to Wun Ngo Wen, a Martian linguist who travels to Earth with a plan to study the membrane. While on Earth he becomes a confidante of both Jason and Tyler, although the federal government naturally tries to use him for their own purposes.

Spin is told in alternating chapters, the majority following the growth and activities of Jason, Tyler and Diane. Interspersed with this main storyline are chapters about Tyler and Diane thirty years after the membrane appears, and while at first it is unclear what is happening in those chapters, as Wilson’s main storyline approaches that time period it not only becomes clear what is happening in those portions, but we slowly realize that these are the climactic chapters of the book when thirty years’ worth of personal and sfnal development all come together.

Science fiction novels which begin with “big dumb objects” rarely offer any explanation at the end, or even a glimpse at the mysterious alien builders. Think of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. Wilson avoids that frustration for the reader by having his scientists determine the cause of the membrane’s creation, and also using the membrane as a doorway into the future for much of the human race itself.

Spin is a strong, well-developed novel which satisfies on a literary level, on a sfnal level, and on a plotting level. The novel reaches a strong, suitable conclusion that is totally unexpected yet proves ultimately satisfying. Spin deserved its numerous award nominations, and I would be pleased if it actually won several of them.


  • I have just discovered your blog and I would like to congratulate you on the thoughtful reviews.

    Reading the reviews of books I have read, I realize our impressions are not too different, so the rest of reviews should be helpful for me. Spin is one of the novels I'd like to read as soon as possible, by the way.


    By Blogger Farseer, At 6:51 PM  

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