Retro fix–Tor Essentials re-issues Robert Charles Wilson’s science fiction thriller Spin

Review by C.J. Bunce

Tor Essentials is a new library of backlist science fiction and fantasy novels from Macmillan Publishing’s Tor imprint, so far featuring 15 novels plucked from the past few decades.  One of those 21st century titles is a well-constructed gem, Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin A broad, epic story that traverses literally billions of years from the vantage of a doctor living on Earth, the novel packs a lot of ideas into 300 pages.  The sub-genres covered are a mix of apocalypse, speculative fiction, and Martians, but not quite the aliens of H.G. Wells or Robert Heinlein.  Like the inexplicable monolith of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a giant black barrier has blocked the atmosphere so we no longer see the Sun, the Moon, or the Stars, but some secret force is protecting the Earth from the effects of such an occurrence.  Somehow Wilson connects the dots between the absurd and the improbable with the realities of the human condition to arrive at a story similar to Daniel H. Wilson’s The Andromeda Evolution, another intriguing, creative tale that made readers believe the unlikely was possible.

First published in 2005 the novel received much acclaim from science fiction readers, including the Hugo Award.  Spin is “old school” science fiction of the 1950s vintage, addressing a hypothetical construct, placing it in the present, and that present could be 2005 or 2021, and digging in to flesh out the possibilities.  Sixteen years later the content and science holds up well.  Readers will get to know the three key characters in a way similar to the trio of heroes of Starship Troopers, three close friends–actually a set of twins, Jason and Diane Lawton, and their male friend, Tyler Dupree–have a normal life until the age of 12, when at a get-together they look up into the sky and the stars vanish.  The hard science of such an occurrence is well-known to astronomers and atmospheric scientists, and it’s detailed, but Wilson whittles it down for anyone to follow.

Outside this new barrier, called the Spin, time clips by much faster than before, roughly a hundred million years to each Earth year, so if humans send a research vessel up into space and it comes back to the surface within a day, it will contain vast amounts of data–hundreds of thousands of years of data–too much to even record.  As we humans have learned in 2020 with the reaction to a worldwide catastrophe, Wilson’s predictions of how the world might react to a potential doomsday was strikingly prescient.  Over the lifetime of the three characters we see reflected some of the myriad realities of human responses to any massive life-change: Jason works with his father’s money and influence to try to crack the problem of the Spin by becoming a scientist and leading the effort to protect Earth from its effects.  Tyler chooses to become a doctor in order to help the people around him.  And Diane joins a cult that tries to explain the changes in the world using an amalgam of religious influences.  Subordinate characters turn to alcohol, others become more political or philosophical, telecom networks fail while other corporations thrive.  Is the Spin enemy or friend?  Are those behind it enemies or friends?  Along their journey, Jason and his father make a discovery that allows Earth to attempt to terraform Mars, and even grow a civilization of life there.  Yes, it sounds silly, but again, Wilson makes it plausible enough to stay engaged.

No, there isn’t life on Mars, at least until we put it there.

If the story sounds familiar, its because you may have seen the Star Trek Voyager episode “Blink of an Eye,” which followed the Emergency Medical Hologram as he traveled to the surface of a planet which evolved at an accelerated rate compared to the Voyager ship in orbit.  As a result, the EMH lives out a lifetime on the planet’s surface before returning to the ship only hours later and protecting it from an assault from the planet’s surface.  Spin lacks the kind of action of that story, but it does have a good grasp on the despair and hopelessness of humans preparing for an uncertain outcome.

A good read to pull from the archives, and a nice choice for the Tor Essentials library.  Order Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin in a new trade paperback edition with a foreword by John Scalzi now available here at Amazon.  And if you enjoy the novel, it has two sequels, Axis, published in 2007, and Vortex, from 2011.

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