**spoiler alert** Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel and deservedly so. It is science fiction in all the stereotypical ways--it includes spac...more**spoiler alert** Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel and deservedly so. It is science fiction in all the stereotypical ways--it includes space/time travel, advanced technology, planetary exploration, even an alien--but it goes well beyond this, interweaving explanation of the technology with character development, a fully realized social reality, and explorations of what it means to be human and to face the reality of death, both of the individual and of the species.
When Tyler DuPree, the novel's protagonist, is 12 years old, the stars in Earth's sky disappear. He and his friends Jason and Diane watch as they blink out. The world has been placed within a membrane that slows time for the earth while the rest of the universe ages. This phenomenon comes to be known as the Spin. For every one second that passes on earth, 3.17 years pass outside the membrane; for every year on earth, 100 million outside the Spin. The Hypotheticals (as the creators of this membrane come to be called) are mysterious, unknown. Are they benevolent or malevolent? There is no way for humanity to know. The only thing they do know is that they are fast running out of time. The sun will die eventually and then so will they. As it is, the only thing that is keeping them from dying is the membrane itself. If it disappears, all of humanity dies--pretty much immediately. If it does not disappear, all of humanity dies anyway--just a little further into the future.
Tyler, Jason, & Diane belong to a generation without hope, that expects the world to end before they have a chance to grow old and die naturally. This generational and worldwide millenarianism and apocalypticism is borne of science, though, not religious fervor. And because humanity's fate is provable and real, the world is changed, and not for the better:
"The global economy had begun to oscillate, consumers and nations accumulating debt loads they expected never to have to repay, while creditors hoarded funds and interest rates spiked. Extreme religiosity and brutal criminality had increased in tandem, at home and abroad. The effects were especially devastating in third world nations, where collapsing currencies and recurrent famine helped revive slumbering Marxist and militant Islamic movements. . . . The suicidally disgruntled were legion, and their enemies included any and all Americans, Brits, Canadians, Danes, et cetera; or, conversely, all Moslems, dark-skinned people, non-English-speakers, immigrants; all Catholics, fundamentalists, atheists; all liberals, all conservatives . . . For such people the consummate act of moral clarity was a lynching or a suicide bombing, a fatwa or a pogrom. And they were ascendant now, rising like dark stars over a terminal landscape." (190-1)
The novel explores the reactions of people to the knowledge of their certain death for uncertain reasons. Do they turn to religion? Science? Sex? Drugs? Do they veil themselves in ignorance and pretend not to see the end coming? Do they try to change the future? Or do they try to live with the full knowledge of what is coming, no anesthetic, no avoidance, nor any savior complex or false hope?
What does it mean to live in a world without a future?
For most people, growing up in this world means reaching out for faith, for something to anchor them in an increasing chaotic world. Sometimes that's religion. For Diane, this is the case. Sometimes, however, that something is much smaller.
For instance, when the world seems to be finally truly ending, as Tyler struggles to save Diane's life, this exchange between Tyler and Simon, Diane's husband and a religious fanatic, is revealing. Tyler says,
"I refuse to let her die as long as I have a choice." "I envy you that," Simon said quietly. "What? What could you possibly envy?" "Your faith," he said. (386)
Faith is not the sole province of the religious. Tyler has faith in something, too. He has faith that there is something to work for, that there is still hope, no matter how small it is. He is essentially agnostic and he has more faith in the end than the sincerely religious man does. What he has found to hold onto is nothing big, nothing that provides a real hope for the future. What he has found to hold onto is instead the present, the moment, his specific abilities and his determination to continue doing what he can do for as long as possible.
But Tyler's faith is a small faith, not a big one. He may believe in his ability to do what he can, but he no longer believes in "Big Salvation." As the Spin lasts longer and longer, he realizes that his faith in such salvation is gone.
"All the brands and flavors of Big Salvation. At the last minute we would devise a technological fix and save ourselves. Or: the Hypotheticals were benevolent beings who would turn the planet into a peaceable kingdom. Or: God would rescue us all, or at least the true believers among us. Or. Or. Or. Big Salvation. It was a honeyed lie. A paper lifeboat, even if we were killing ourselves trying to cling to it. It wasn't the Spin that had mutilated my generation. It was the lure and price of Big Salvation." (340)
He already intuits what Jason says to him later, that we are all as "ephemeral as raindrops." The danger, this reveals, is not a lack of faith but too much faith. Too much faith is blinding, misleading, and eventually harmful.
As Martian Wun Ngo Wen says, "the question is how to look at the sun without being blinded" (323). The question here is how to have faith without ceding the ability to ask questions, how to believe in the future without ignoring the truth of our tiny place in the universe and denying the inevitability of death.
Jason writes in his final letter to Tyler,
"Our generation has struggled for thirty years to recover what the Spin stole from us that October night. But we can't. There's nothing in this evolving universe to hold on to, and nothing to be gained by trying. If I learned anything from my 'Fourthness,' that's it. We're as ephemeral as raindrops. We all fall, and we all land somewhere." (428)
Diane provides even more illumination of this idea, though from a very different perspective. She says to Tyler:
"There's a phrase Pastor Bob Kobel liked to use back at Jordan Tabernacle. 'His heart cried out to God.' If it describes anyone, it describes Simon. But you have to parse the sentence. 'His heart cried out'--I think that's all of us, it's universal. You, Simon, me, Jason. Even Carol. Even E.D. When people come to understand how big the universe is and how short a human life is, their hearts cry out. Sometimes it's a shout of joy: I think that's what it was for Jason; I think that's what I didn't understand about him. He had the gift of awe. But for most of us it's a cry of terror. The terror of extinction, the terror of meaninglessness. Our hearts cry out. Maybe to God, or maybe just to break the silence." (440)
Diane and Jason both confirm the fact that we have no savior to turn to, no God, no hope to grasp a foothold in this universe. Even the Hypotheticals are not aliens with godlike powers; they are actually an evolving form of technology that is part of a larger network. They are neither benevolent nor malevolent. The Spin may be protecting humanity, but even still, Jason points out, "The Spin membrane isn't God--it can't see the sparrow fall. It can, however, prevent the sparrow from being cooked with lethal ultraviolet light" (411). The Spin membrane is a protection, but it isn't a savior. Ultimately, what happens to humanity is left in the hands of humanity. For some unknown, mysterious, and perhaps self-serving reason, humanity has been given a second chance. And a third. And perhaps even more.
But the evolution of those chances is neither predetermined nor protected. As Tyler, Diane, and the other refugees cross over the Arch to the new world, Ina says, "It's as if one history has ended and another has begun," while En (a child with his whole future ahead of him) disagrees, saying, "History doesn't start until we land" (452). Neither of these statements is quite right, though. Human history has not ended. A new chapter may be opening, but these humans carry with them to these new worlds the baggage of terrestrial history. That cannot be erased. There is still a burden to carry. Can humans learn to live responsibly, ethically, sustainably with a fresh start? Or will this planet be devoured in the same way the earth was? If the same people and the same cultural values are being transported to a new planet, what will keep humanity from repeating this process?
Wilson provides the reader with a vision of what might be necessary in order to avoid re-creating this history. The "Fourthness" described by Tyler and Diane is not just a physical state. It's not just that their bodies have changed, gained years of life. The Fourth age also includes a deeper sense of empathy, a sense that pain occurring to others is occurring to the observer. It is this empathy that might give a new world a chance. This extended sense of self provides possibilities for change, possibilities for living more ethically in a new world, possibilities for a more sustainable environmental policy and more peaceful political relations.
The question remaining at the end of the novel is whether or not this is enough. Perhaps this is just a reprieve after all. As Tyler notes,
"we had never conquered death, only engineered reprieves (the pill, the powder, the angioplasty, the Fourth Age)--enacted our conviction that more life, even a little more life, might yet yield the pleasure or wisdom we wanted or had missed in it. No one goes home from a triple bypass or a longevity treatment expecting to live forever. Even Lazarus left the grave knowing he'd die a second time. But he came forth. He came forth gratefully." (234)
Spin is a novel of fear and warning, but also of very cautious hope.(less)
Robert Charles Wilson's Bios is a short but rewarding novel about the exploration of Isis, a distant planet that is earthlike in many important but th...moreRobert Charles Wilson's Bios is a short but rewarding novel about the exploration of Isis, a distant planet that is earthlike in many important but that is also toxic to humans. Humans can only leave the protected outposts in bulky and not always reliable containment suits. Until Zoe arrives. Zoe brings with her new technology, both external (a new type of suit) and internal (she has been biologically modified in order to better withstand the toxic environment of Isis). The book is concerned with the scientists who are living on the planet and trying to understand its dangers and its promise, Zoe and her place as a pioneer and an unwitting experiment, and the bureaucrats and managers who live and watch all of this from a space station orbiting Isis. Over the course of the book, one crisis after another arises as Isis rejects the newcomers, breaching their defenses and killing them, sometimes one by one and sometimes en masse. In the end, the question is not whether any of them will survive but what the future will bring for Isis and for humanity as a whole, how this doomed expedition might affect the lives of each and what it can reveal about life in its entirety.
Bios is ultimately about the fragility and the strength of life itself. The novel illuminates the fragility of human life in the context of a foreign and hostile world, in the presence of biological hazards and unfamiliar life forms, while simultaneously revealing the strength of life itself, in all its many forms. Zoe asks,
"Why do humans worship gods, Tam?" Because we're descended from them, Zoe thought. We're their mute and crippled offspring, in all our millions. (205)
For Wilson, in this novel, conscious life, whether seated in planets like Isis or humans like ourselves, is what is truly sacred. It can be damaged and, at least on the individual level, it can be taken away, but it is nothing less than the center of the universe.(less)
Axis is far from a bad book. It is entertaining and includes some well-crafted scenes, some focusing on the characters and some on the scenery of a new world or on the results of the general weirdness that goes on (to say more would be to give away too much, I think). But the philosophical weight and character-driven focus of Spin is missing. It seems at times as if Wilson does attempt to build the same kind of balance between character and plot and to carry out the same forward momentum that Spin maintains so well, but these attempts in Axis feel shallow in comparison.
What's more, while the sequel does elaborate more on the breadth and function of the Hypotheticals than Spin is able to do, this elaboration is only a small part of the novel, a part that is dealt with in short, fast-moving chapters that are chock full of physical and (at least intended) emotional upheaval. This makes for a good adventure story but doesn't allow for much thought beyond, "Oh, so that's what's going on... Okay. I get it, I guess." There is neither time nor room (in the book or in the ideas) for meditation. And that space for meditation is what makes Spin a great book and not just an exciting book.
If you've read Spin and you're just dying to know more about the new worlds that are opened up by that book or about the Hypotheticals, you might want to read Axis. It will provide more information. But don't read Axis expecting another book of Spin's caliber. (less)
This is maybe more of a 3.5 star book for me. I'm rounding up instead of down because the world-building is fantastic and I was so interested in the s...moreThis is maybe more of a 3.5 star book for me. I'm rounding up instead of down because the world-building is fantastic and I was so interested in the situation. However, I never really quite managed to care about the characters and the book is focused as much on character as it is on plot. Ultimately, this book is intellectually interesting but not emotionally compelling. I'd recommend it, but it's not going to make my favorites list.(less)