Spin: Every science fiction novel condensed into one book

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With Spin, Robert Charles Wilson has condensed every science fiction novel into one book.

It’s quite an accomplishment, really, though the novel begins innocently enough. We’re in the near future with our narrator, Tyler Dupree, who is injected with a strange cure somewhere in Sumatra. The drug produces side effects, and one of them compels Tyler to tell his life’s story.

Tyler grew up in the little house “across the lawn.” His mother, Carol, cleaned the house of the Lawton family while Tyler played games with their children, Jason and Diane. Jason, a genius, is groomed to take over his father’s vast fortune. Their father, E.D, neglects Diane. Tyler envies Jason and Diane their fancy bicycles and their wealth. Even as a child, he always loved Diane.

One night, Tyler, Jason, and Diane are sitting on the lawn looking up at the stars.  And then the stars go out. It turns out that the world is going to end, but fortunately, Jason’s genius and his father’s status position him to work out what is going on. And he thankfully shares what is going on with Tyler, who explains it all to us.

So where did the stars go? Unfortunately, any more details would spoil the fun.

Wilson is a fine writer, but the key to Spin’s success is the hard science fiction. At times, the novel’s structure is a little transparent: Jason discovers something, tells Tyler in one of their meetings, and the reader has the fun of putting it all together. I couldn’t help thinking of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which also features a talented narrator recalling how the world ended and his time near a genius. Wilson does not have Atwood’s way with characters, which seems like a mark against him until you ask “who does?”. Having said that, I have always felt that Atwood gets many of her ideas from some mix of the zeitgeist and a study of ecology, whereas I can only begin to speculate where Wilson’s ideas come from. The stars go out, and Wilson is left to write a story that explains what could cause that, and why. Where does that premise come from?

The premise may be unique, but many readers will find Jason’s quest to unravel this mystery satisfyingly familiar. Without giving too much away, Jason and Tyler go on a quick tour of science fiction’s greatest tropes without ever leaving the ground. They find their way to panspermia, terraforming, the philosopher’s stone, Martians, von Neumann machines, a star child, interstellar portals, and more. There is also a cult.

It would be misleading to label Spin a thrilling science fiction novel. Although I did find the plot and the characters interesting, they did not keep me up very much past my bedtime. Having said that, it is difficult to imagine any sci-fi reader putting down Spin unsatisfied. It has just about everything a science fiction novel can hope to offer, and it comes by these old standards so honestly that the Martians feel new. What more could a science fiction story offer?

For some reason, there are two sequels that will almost certainly fail to live up to Spin’s standard.

Spin — (2005-2011) Publisher: Spin is Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo Award-winning masterpiece — a stunning combination of a galactic “what if” and a small-scale, very human story. One night in October when he was ten years old, Tyler Dupree stood in his back yard and watched the stars go out. They all flared into brilliance at once, then disappeared, replaced by a flat, empty black barrier. He and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, had seen what became known as the Big Blackout. It would shape their lives. The effect is worldwide. The sun is now a featureless disk — a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain. Not only have the world’s artificial satellites fallen out of orbit, their recovered remains are pitted and aged, as though they’d been in space far longer than their known lifespans. As Tyler, Jason, and Diane grow up, a space probe reveals a bizarre truth: The barrier is artificial, generated by huge alien artifacts. Time is passing faster outside the barrier than inside — more than a hundred million years per year on Earth. At this rate, the death throes of the sun are only about forty years in our future. Jason, now a promising young scientist, devotes his life to working against this slow-moving apocalypse. Diane throws herself into hedonism, marrying a sinister cult leader who’s forged a new religion out of the fears of the masses. Earth sends terraforming machines to Mars to let the onrush of time do its work, turning the planet green. Next they send humans… and immediately get back an emissary with thousands of years of stories to tell about the settling of Mars. Then Earth’s probes reveal that an identical barrier has appeared around Mars. Jason, desperate, seeds near space with self-replicating machines that will scatter copies of themselves outward from the sun — and report back on what they find. Life on Earth is about to get much, much stranger.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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