Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Published: Tor, 2005
Series: Book 1 of the Spin Sequence
Awards Won: Hugo Award
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell  Memorial Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

“One night, three young friends—Diane and Jason Lawton, and their housekeeper’s son, Tyler Dupree—witnessed an event that would shape the future of humanity.  With no warning, the stars blinked out of the sky.

Before long, there was at least a minimal explanation of what had happened.  The stars were still there, but a mysterious shield was blocking the Earth’s view of them.  Outside of this shield, the universe was aging rapidly, at a rate of around 100 million years to each year on Earth.  Humanity only continued to exist by the grace of whatever created this shield, and there was no telling when that period of grace might be over.

Despite this world-changing event, society continued to plod on as usual.  As they grew up, Jason, Diane, and Tyler found different ways to cope with this incomprehensible event.  Jason, a brilliant young man who was being groomed for success by his wealthy father, threw himself into science.  He was determined to find the truth behind the shield before the end times.  His sister Diane, who had always been an extra child, threw herself into religion.  She hoped to find some meaning for her life through the religious sects that had sprung up in response to the slow-motion apocalypse.       

Tyler wandered through his life filled with a kind of numbness.  He tried to keep up with both Lawtons, through conversations with Diane and a career at Jason’s side.  Jason was coming ever closer to the answers he sought, through technology that would not be usable on a human time scale without the effects of the shield.  But would these answers bring hope, or only more despair?” ~Allie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Robert Charles Wilson, and it came highly recommended by various book blogs.  While it is the first novel of a series, it is definitely a complete story on its own.  In fact, I believe the second novel, Axis, does not feature the same set of characters, but is rather another story set at a later time in the same universe. 

My Thoughts:

In some ways, Spin reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  In both stories, something is being done to the Earth, with no real explanation, by powers outside of humanity’s control. Both novels also seem to be a sort of strangely passive coming-of-age story for the human race, though this maturation occurs through different means and reaches very different ends. Another major difference between the two novels is that Clarke focused on the many rippling changes in humanity and human society as a result of the external meddling, while Wilson focuses mostly on the personal lives of his three main characters.  While there is some scientific and societal speculation in Spin, it always takes place in the context of the private lives of Tyler, Jason, and Diane.

The story is framed by a future arc, which is an account of Tyler undergoing a harrowing transformative procedure. In this framing arc, Tyler is frantically attempting to get his life story recorded, since he fears that the procedure may damage his memory. The main bulk of the novel is made up of Tyler’s chronological description of his life, starting from his childhood with Jason and Diane.  For me, the future arc seemed much more compelling than Tyler’s life story.  While most of Tyler’s life seemed to exist in a tense holding pattern, the future arc seems as though it is moving rapidly forward into an enticingly uncertain future.

For the most part, I thought that Tyler seemed like a passive observer. Most of his narration consisted of reporting on the lives of his two closest friends. His character is mostly understood through his relationship to Diane, for whom he carried a life-long crush, and Jason, who he essentially hero-worshipped.  Jason and Diane were kind of examples of two extremes people might drift towards in the face of an incomprehensible apocalypse.  Diane made religious faith the single most important thing in her life, and Jason chose science to fill that role for him.  Neither of them had much of a life outside of their respective obsessions.  I was more interested in Jason, mostly because he is the conduit through which the reader learns about the ‘Spin’ barrier and the creative ways humanity exploits the time differential to do things that would be impossible in today’s world.   

The characters were pretty well developed, but I didn’t personally find them very compelling.   As a result, I became much more interested towards the end of the novel, when more information about the ‘Spin’ barrier and the fate of humanity began to appear.  I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ultimate explanation for the barrier, but there are still two novels left in the trilogy to further develop the motivation behind it.  I think the end of the novel sets up a really intriguing situation, and I am very curious to see how Wilson will use the universe he’s created in the rest of the trilogy. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

Spin is a story of how people cope with the sudden appearance of a mysterious barrier around the Earth, a barrier that may doom the entire human species.  Most of the novel focused on the lives and relationships of Tyler Dupree, his eternal crush Diane Lawton, and her genius brother Jason Lawton.  The characters were pretty well developed, but I just wasn’t very drawn in by them.  Tyler, the narrator, was essentially an observer, and he was defined by his relationships with Jason and Diane.  Jason and Diane were defined by their respective obsessions, science and religion.  I became more interested later in the book, when the science-fictional explanations began to appear.  I think Wilson has created an interesting universe in Spin, and I’m looking forward to see what further stories he has to tell within it!  


  1. I have this book on my "to read" pile for a while now. One of the few Hugo winners left for me to still read. I'm getting to it :-)

    If the follow does not feature the same characters, can I safely assume the story of "Spin" is self-contained?

  2. I still have something like 20 Hugo winners to read... I'm sure I will get to them all eventually :). I think you can safely assume "Spin" is self-contained. However, I get the impression that the sequels rely on the world-building of "Spin". My guess would be that they're best read in order, though each novel appears to have a self-contained story.

  3. I was also more interested in Jason due to his connection to the Spin, but my overall interest in the story petered out before the Spin was explained in any detail. I still have to finish it. It was readable but, as you observe, the way in which Tyler, Jason, and Diane aren't characterized much beyond their obsessions didn't make them as engaging as they could have been.

  4. I thought eventual explanation for the Spin was neat, but the information was a long time coming. I read the post on your blog where you described why you stopped reading the novel, and I think I pretty much agreed with the points you made. It's irritating when the book plays the "The Earth is About to Die" card and then calmly carries on with everyday life, pining over childhood crushes and family drama. Do you think you'll go back to finish it someday?

  5. I've now finished "Spin" and had the same experience as @Matthew. I came very close to abandoning the book, but stuck it out. The religious parts and the ensuing calamities following the "Flicker" was well written and kept me reading, but I could not really engage with any of the characters. I felt a little cheated towards the end with the whole business of Mars' magic drug and the "escape" to another world.

  6. I have to admit, the magic Martian drug was pretty irritating. The main thing I liked about the ending was that it seemed like an interesting set-up for a future story. That's kind of why I was interested in reading the second one- a whole new set of (hopefully more engaging) characters and a more interesting environment.