I was twelve, and the twins were thirteen, the night the stars disappeared from the sky(12).
Robert Charles Wilson’s new novel ranks among this year’s best SF.
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Original Publication Date: April 2005
A dark membrane embraces the world, with only an artificial “sun” rising and setting to provide the necessary solar energy. Later that evening, some half-mad cosmonauts make a desperate emergency landing—which they swear they only attempted after a week of deliberation. Satellites occasionally return, impossibly aged.
The world has changed, and it seems that the end really is near. We witness the events, and their impact on human society, from the perspective of three people who were children on the night the sky went black. Two grow up to be at the center of attempts to deal with the new reality, while the third becomes involved in religious movements which have developed in reaction to the Spin.
“If the world doesn’t come to an end in the next thirty or forty years,” he said, we may be facing disaster.”
Good writing is rarely about high points; it’s about consistently doing something well. Against the backdrop of a truly bizarre development, Wilson places believable people. The social reactions to the Spin seem natural, the sort of things the human race I know would do when faced with the unimaginable, and not forced in a direction to make some point of the writer’s (not that Wilson avoids getting political).
In the realm of ideas, the plan launched regarding Mars, and the glimpses we receive of that planet’s future history, seem simultaneously fantastic yet plausible, given the circumstances of this novel (which, admittedly, are rather unlikely).
The concepts with which Wilson deals make it difficult to completely avoid lengthy, expository passages, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying. As with most SF, this novel works best when he explores how his ideas affect his characters and society, and less well on those few occasions when he subjects us to Infodump.
Originality: 4/6 A potential world-ending scenario, aliens who muck about with earth’s history, life-prolonging drugs, and the colonization of Mars: all of these elements will be familiar to SF fans. However, the premise underlying this novel is fairly original.
The ending also relies on a genre cliché– the Weird DevelopmentTM takes on an apocalyptic, New Heaven and a New EarthTM meaning. However, this novel’s premise limits the number of possible endings, and Wilson’s does not detract from the experience of reading this book.
Story: 5/6 The story will engage you initially for its mystery, but hold you throughout the novel, as levels of explanation unfold.
Characterization: 5/6 Wilson writes very well, and creates believable characters. If he shortchanges some of the secondary characters, he draws the central ones well.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Wilson’s near-future is very much the world I know, plunged into an unfamiliar scenario.
Editing: 5/6. Wilson ranks among SF’s best prose stylists. Unlike some of his more idea-oriented peers, he understands the importance of the apt detail to fiction. He does, however, give into the Dark Side, aka Infodump, a little too often.
Overall Score: 6/6.
In total, Spin receives 36/42
Consider what we’re asking them to believe. We’re talking, globally, about a population with an almost pre-Newtonian grasp of astronomy…. To say anything meaningful about the Spin to those people, you have to start a long way back. The Earth, you have to tell them, is a few billion years old, to begin with. Let them wrestle with the concept of ‘a billion years,’ maybe for the first time. It’s a lot to swallow, especially if you’ve been educated in a Moslem theocracy, an animist village, or a public school in the Bible Belt…. Cosmology 101, right? You picked it up from all those paperbacks you used to read, it’s second nature to you, but for most people it’s a whole new worldview and probably offensive to a bunch of their core beliefs. So let that sink in. Let that sink in, then deliver the real bad news.
I wish we learned more about his future history of Mars– and the ending leaves us wanting more of the Arch. This novel creates the potential for sequels, though they would have to be handled carefully.