Earth has now been surrounded by the mysterious spin barrier that slows time relative to the rest of the universe for decades. Extra-terrestrial forces have also built the Arch that connects Earth to a series of unknown and increasingly environmentally hostile worlds. Humanity is now colonizing the first new world, but they still wonder about what beings — the Hypotheticals — could have created the spin barriers around these planets, not to mention the arches that connect them.
There are intergalactic forces at work in Axis, Robert Charles Wilson’s sequel to Spin, but the story is grounded in Lise Adams’ quest to discover what happened to her father. He went missing without any trace when she was young. She attracts Turk Findley, a frontier pilot, to her cause and together they journey into the desert in search of Dr. Avram Dvali, who may be able to tell her what happened to her father. They soon learn that Dvali is the leader of a group of Fourths, humans that have illegally extended their lives through bioengineering. However, Turk and Lise do not realize that the Department of Genomic Security is following them in order to find and quietly exterminate Dvali and his followers.
Although the Department of Genomic Security is corrupt — on its own authority, it detains, tortures, and executes people that tamper with their DNA — Dr. Dvali is the real antagonist of Axis. We learn that he is obsessed with “the transcendent forces of the universe. Some people chafe at their humanity. They want to be redeemed by something larger than themselves, to ratify their sense of their own unique value. They want to touch God.” Dvali is a zealot, and he has engineered a child, Isaac, in the hope of communicating with the Hypotheticals.
Dvali may be our villain, but he is one that most of Wilson’s readers can identify with. It is the need to find out who or what the Hypotheticals are that will keep readers turning pages. After all, Axis’s plot is pretty thin: Lise and Turk travel into the desert and the Department of Genomic Security follows them. As wild goose chases go, Axis’s goose chase is not very wild. Instead, it is the stories behind the story that makes Axis interesting. Lise and Turk’s quest to learn about her father’s fate, while important to Lise, provides readers with a window into the lives of the Fourths, the history of the Martians, and, maybe, into the nature of the Hypotheticals.
Axis may not be as stunning as its predecessor, Spin, but it remains a very good science fiction novel built around unusual phenomena and the human need to understand those phenomena. Some argue that humans will not and should not understand everything in the universe. Like Dvali, I hope Wilson resists the urge to reinforce that belief in Vortex, the concluding novel of the trilogy. It would be terrible to come this far not to solve the mystery of the Hypotheticals.