I’ve been on the hunt again recently for a good sci-fi novel, and since I can no longer trust io9 reviews, I found a few best-novels-of-the-decade lists, and discovered that this highly recommended book already lived in my bookshelf.
Happily, it lived up to high expectations. I have a few quibbles (the pacing is lopsided, and the prose, while deft, can be dry), but in sum this is one of those rare gems: a well-written novel with a genre plot.
The literary-ish side of Spin follows three friends—a pair of fraternal twins, Diane and Jason Lawton, and their best friend Tyler Dupree—as they come of age and mature during the end of the world. The apocalypse takes a unique form: instead of an asteroid or a plague, some otherworldly entity has come along and encased Earth in a strange bubble that they call a “membrane” because it allows through certain things, like spacecraft. Inside the membrane, things look more or less normal, though the stars are blotted out and the sun is an artificial impostor. Outside, time is passing at a much faster rate; each second on Earth amounts to three years in the universe outside.
That means that the current human generation will live to see the solar system’s habitable zone move beyond Earth, and will die either from the increased solar radiation or from the sun’s eventual collapse and nova.
Almost as terrifying as this slow doom is the fact that there’s no sign of who’s behind the spin membrane. People dub them “the Hypotheticals,” and fear or worship them in equal measure.
Tyler, Jason, and Diane, meanwhile, go about their lives. Tyler (the narrator) becomes a doctor, and nurses a slow-burning crush on Diane. Jason (a genius) works for his father’s aerospace company, which tries through various methods to fix the Spin, or at least understand it. Diane joins a cult, and marries a fellow cult member, who is a gentle coward.
The pace of the universe aging outside means that Tyler witnesses something that usually can’t happen in a single human lifetime: the terraforming of a planet. Jason’s father’s company, called Perihelion, arranges to send life-breeding organisms to Mars. They transform the planet’s atmosphere and ecology over the course of millions and millions of years. In Spin-time, it takes about a year. Then, Perihelion sends people to Mars, and a short while later, a Martian appears back on Earth, the product of another 100,000 years of human evolution.
Ultimately this is a book about the time-scale of the universe. It’s a plot in which enormous things happen over the course of eons, and the Spin membrane is the device with which Wilson puts a human face on it. For the most part, he’s successful. Tyler, Jason, and Diane have nuanced emotions and richly detailed lives, and Wilson’s excellent prose makes that nuanced detail possible. For instance, here’s a paragraph that takes place when Diane and Tyler have been reunited after many years apart, when Diane has joined the cult and towed her future husband back to their makeshift reunion:
We were drinking coolers and talking about trivia. Books we’d read, movies we’d seen. The conversation was mesmerizing, not for its content but for the the cadences of the talk, the rhythm we fell into when we were alone, now as before. Every conversation between friends or lovers creates its own easy or awkward rhythms, hidden talk that runs like a subterranean river under even the most banal exchange. What we said was trite and conventional, but the undertalk was deep and occasionally treacherous.
It’s that kind of insightful sensibility that makes this novel work as a marriage of scales: the scale of a single human life, with its day-by-day highs and lows, and the scale of a universe, where billions of lifetimes of existence add up to one small change on one small planet in a tiny corner of a single galaxy.
There are, as I mentioned, some drawbacks; this is by no means a perfect novel. Wilson alternates the timeline of Tyler and co. growing up and dealing with the Spin with a far-ahead timeline, when Jason is dead and Tyler and Diane have fled to Thailand to visit a mysterious thousand-mile-wide arch across the ocean.
Wilson spends too much time and effort on this secondary timeline, in what looks like an effort to inject some drama into a relatively sedentary main storyline. It turns out to be largely a misdirection and a manipulation, and the time feels doubly wasted when questions finally get answered (and they do, though it sometimes feels like they won’t), but Wilson hasn’t left enough pages to do justice to the repercussions of the things he invokes.
The prose, like that main storyline, can sometimes feel sedentary. Tyler’s primary character trait is a kind of stoic pragmatism: he’s the one worried about how to find food for dinner even when there’s an 80% chance nobody will live to see the morning. It’s not a bad characterization by any means, and he’s the perfect protagonist for Wilson’s surprising theme. It’s just not always a treat to be in his head.
Ultimately, this is not a novel you rip through in a single joyful session. It’s a hike, and at times a bit of a trudge, but in the end it’s a satisfying journey.