There’s a recent trend in science fiction to push further and to go bigger that goes along with Big Ideas like singularity. Why worry about life in a thousand years, when we can imagine a billion years in the future? I have mixed feelings about this trend, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not an approach that tends to spotlight character, which was never sf’s strong suit anyway. In Spin, however, Wilson’s come up with a very ingenious way to tell a personal story that spans three billion years.
Our narrator is Tyler Dupree. He grows up on the estate of an aerospace entrepreneur named E. D. Lawton, and hangs out with E. D.’s twin prodigies, Jason and Diane. One evening in the early twentieth century, when they’re all adolescents, the stars go out. It soon becomes clear that the Earth has been enveloped in a bubble by mysterious “hypothetical” forces. The bubble protects the Earth and slows the passage of time within, so that millions, then billions, of years begin to fly by on the outside, in a phenomenon people call “spin.” Unfortunately, this means that the sun’s death throes will destroy the Earth in decades rather than billions of years, and humanity has to contemplate its doom within a human lifespan. Jason becomes a brilliant scientist and develops plans to understand and even fight the hypotheticals. Diane joins a new strain of Christianity that devolves from neo-hippies to a millennium cult. Tyler tries to live a quiet life as a doctor, but he loves Jason, he’s in love with Diane, and he keeps being drawn into their struggles with the spin. This is my second Wilson novel…and the second one with a narrator slavishly devoted to a smarter, better, yet aloof hero. I don’t know if this is a device Wilson is overly fond of, or a personal issue for him.
There are obviously big sf ideas here. Besides the spin itself, Jason’s plans usually involve using the time differential to jumpstart technology. His coolest plan involves seeding Mars with life and seeing what a few million years of evolution can pull off. Nevertheless, it is really a character-focused story, as we spend all of our time with Jason, and we hear as much about the Lawtons’ familial disputes as we do about Martian super-technology. The problem is that I didn’t like the characters all that much. Tyler is defined almost entirely by his relationship to the Lawtons, Jason is obsessed with solving the spin to the exclusion of all else, and Diane is so damn frustrating. I have sympathy for people who are victimized by cults, but I think I’d find it a bit of a turn off. Cult-Diane treats Tyler terribly and herself even worse, and there’s nothing here to give any indication as to why the narrator is so in love with her.
So, kudos to Wilson for spotlighting character drama over Big Ideas, but, unfortunately, I enjoyed the Big Ideas a lot more than the character drama in this specific novel. I still liked it overall though.