Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson turns out another winner with this entry, building on the strengths of his previous novels to tell a story with all the sense of wonder you need, but while the science drives the plot the focus is really on the characters and their own reactions to the world changing around them. The eponymous Spin is the somewhat dubious name given to a barrier built around the Earth, pretty much instantaneously, which simultaneously blocks out the stars, controls an artificial sun and causes the relative time within to move much more slowly than the universe as a whole.

How does it work? Who cares, Wilson is never too hung up on the mechanics of his science, taking Clarke’s “indistinguishable from magic” dictum to spare us endless boring pages of future physics, which may upset the clanky hard sf crowd but is probably just as well. Instead the focus is on the viewpoint character Tyler, who has grown up in the shadow of his best friends’ rich family, movers and shakers who not only adapt to profit by the changed world but seek to understand what it all means. In that respect the characters are bit thick, it would seem that the prospect that the Spin is some sort of protection from something doesn’t really cross anyone’s mind, though it would seem rather obvious. The book covers a number of years through these characters’ lives, with more sense of wonder coming from the occasional probes sent up through the barrier to see what’s going on in the rest of the galaxy as the sun ages and the stars move around. There’s also an ongoing unrequited romance between Tyler and his friend Diane, who goes off to join a cult of sorts to make sense of the new order of things in her own way. When the true purpose of the Spin is finally revealed, it’s a satisfyingly complicated, stapledonian take on Von Neumann machines and both their origins and destiny.

Intercut with the main story are occsional chapters taking place in the future where Tyler and Diane are on the run from something and he’s going through a kind of metabolic transformation that’s both dangerous and debilitating. It seems unnecessary to do it this way, there’s no real reason to have much of these chapters at all other than to pad the book out, if they were all in their proper sequence at the end it would move the climax of the revelations of the Spin’s purpose too far from the conclusion of the book, and normally with this type of device the main focus should be on the later story, where here that is not the case. This keeps it from being perfect, but its still a great read anyway and I really like how Wilson keeps his story grounded in the characters’ lives and how they are affected by the dramatic changes in their perception of the universe and the status quo. As the pace of technological change continues to advance in our own world, we should similarly examine more how it affects us and our worldview as on the changes themselves.

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