Vortex: Killer butterflies, interplanetary archipelagos, and a satisfying ending

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsVortex by Robert Charles WilsonVortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Turk Findley has been returned to Equatoria ten thousand years after the Hypotheticals took him and Isaac. Things have changed. The Ring of Worlds that was connected by the Arches remains, but the societies that once traveled between these interplanetary portals have died away and been replaced. The Earth, sadly, is a wasteland. Its oceans are too acidic and its air is too poisonous to support life. Unfortunately, when the Hypotheticals connected Earth to other worlds, humanity began importing oil from Equatoria, which boosted the economy but destroyed our planet.

Now, however, Turk is recruited by Treya, a member of the Vox. The Vox is a limbic democracy (as opposed to a cortical democracy) where everyone has a chip in their neck that connects them to the Network. The Network is, in part, a central set of algorithms and protocols that guides people’s unconscious beliefs. The Vox — fanatics who seek the Hypotheticals — have been attacked for hundreds of years, but they have survived. Hopefully, Turk and, eventually, Isaac, will be able to teach them about the Hypotheticals as they journey through the toxic Earth to Antarctica in search of the Hypotheticals.

We aren’t the first to learn about Turk’s story. Orrin Mather is recording Turk’s story forty years after the Spin (over ten thousand years before Turk encounters the Vox). Orrin records Turk’s story in his notebooks until he is taken to a state ward. Orrin has been working for a smuggler who deals in the Martian longevity treatment. The smuggler hopes to silence and discredit Orrin, but Sandra, a psychiatrist, and Bose, a cop, team up to rescue him.

I was not very intrigued by Sandra’s story, though it does offer Wilson a few opportunities. Turk’s future consternation is grounded in Sandra’s storyline. We also see Earth beginning to boil as humanity recklessly burns fossil fuels from Equatoria. Sandra’s story also connects Vortex to the Earth as it appears in Spin, which allows Wilson to mention the Lawtons and the Fourths society. However, I preferred Turk’s adventures in the distant future. The Vox have built their society on an archipelago that they, for lack of a better word, sail from the oceans of one world to the next. How great is that?

Robert Charles Wilson has said in interviews that he enjoys science fiction, and it shows in what almost feels like a constant state of homage to his peers and predecessors. The Vox Archipelago and its radical government, for example, reminded me of Armada and its inhabitants from China Miéville’s The Scar. I especially enjoyed when Turk finds himself under attack from Hypothetical monsters on Antarctica with one of the Vox administrators. Turk writes:

All the panicked chatter and terrified screaming that had filled my earpiece slowly began to fade, and the final silence, when it came, was even more terrifying than the screams. I couldn’t say how long or how far we ran. We ran until we couldn’t run any more, until there was no sound but the roar of my own labored breath. Then I felt a sudden resistance, Oscar’s arm tugging me backward, and I thought, They got him, he’s dead weight — But he wasn’t. When I turned to face him I found his suit was clean: there were no butterflies on him.

Thank goodness, there are killer butterflies in the future. This sequence reminded me of the space monster science fiction heroes so often encounter as they explore space. More than any other work, Vortex reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s ODYSSEY novels, which offer strange monsters and self-replicating machines to amuse us while Clarke considers the nature of consciousness and our place in the universe.

Monsters and interplanetary archipelagos are all well and good, but is the nature of the Hypotheticals finally revealed? Vortex has cool ideas, killer butterflies, and a faster pace than its predecessors, but at this point most readers will only be interested to learn whether or not the Hypothetical mystery is finally resolved. Though most of the novel alternates between the adventures of Turk and the Vox and of Sandra and Bose, I did finish the novel with a sense of satisfaction that the Hypotheticals were revealed to us — at least as well as they could be using a terrestrial language.

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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