Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is an old fashion novel of super-science that won the Hugo award in 2006. It reminds me of War of the Worlds, but not because the stories are alike, but because of their sense of wonder impact. I really do not want to say anything about what happens in the story, hoping you’ll just try it sight unseen. I’d even advice you not to read the blurbs on the book. If you want the story spoiled, follow the title link to Wikipedia, it explains everything. I’ve read two other books by Wilson, Memory Wire, and Darwinia, and enjoyed them both.
Of course, this puts me in a quandary, because how do I recommend a novel without giving some juicy tidbits to get you hooked? If you can imagine how readers in 1898 felt after reading War of the Worlds, then think about what an alien invasion of 2005 would be like, except that it’s a totally new take on alien invasions, and with luck you might feel awe like H.G.’s readers at the end of the 19th century. The scope of Spin also reminds me of the epoch spanning ideas of Olaf Stapledon. If you’ve happen to have read Greg Egan’s Quarantine, you might think that Spin is less original, but I found it unique enough to admire it’s vast gee-whiz sense of wondrousness. However, these two novels do need a name for their new sub-genre of alien invasion types.
Science fiction has a reputation for poor characterization, and science fiction writers are often accused by literary types of producing pawns for their plots, and that’s essentially what Wilson has done here, but I have to give him great credit because Tyler Dupree, the first person narrator, is very engaging, even though he is still a plot pawn. The trouble is science fiction writers think up ideas first, and then figure out what characters would best show off the ideas dramatically. It’s probably very difficult to create characters in a SF story that don’t feel like straight men setting up gags for the science fictional funny man. [That would make a great blog entry – a discussion of SF characters that stand on their own.]
In Spin, Wilson has created a story around three children and then follows their very long lives. Jason and Diane Lawton are twins, but identical they are not. Jason represents science and Diane religion, while Tyler plays the reporter of their stories, even though he eventually becomes a doctor. Jason and Diane are rich, and Tyler is poor, and like the plot of Brideshead Revisited, Tyler loves their big house, admires Jason and falls in love with Diane. If you subtracted the science fiction, you’d have mediocre love story that would make an entertaining potboiler, but since we’re reading a fantastic tale that John W. Campbell would have loved, that doesn’t matter too much, because when it comes down to it, it’s the super science that dazzles. The characterization is far better than most pulp fiction, and Wilson does a pretty good job developing the family dynamics of the three children and their three parents.
What Robert Charles Wilson has done is imagine science fiction on a big scale, an evolutionary scale of astronomical time, and then invented a gimmick to make it all work in the short life-time of his very human characters. That’s one pretty fancy writing trick. Spin is a very satisfying modern SF novel, that well deserves it’s Hugo award. I recommend it to all science fiction fans.