Two years. That’s the distance in time between Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (https://youtu.be/MnrJzXM7a6o) and the publication of Spin by Robert Charles Wilson in 2005. Needless to say, in his near-future speculation, Wilson made free use of the cellphone as a plot device, and suggested at one point some kind of wireless, handheld, networked gadget, but he didn’t dwell on details and didn’t really put the pieces together.
There were smartphones, of course, in 2004/5, but there was nothing like the iPhone; even the iPhone Jobs introduced was nothing like the iPhone of two years later.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend was published in 1954 and imagined a post-pandemic 1976. The plot device here, one that strands the protagonist out of his house too late in the day, is the forgotten winding of a watch. Only a hardcore of watch nerds has any dealings these days with a watch that you have to wind. I had my first Texas Instruments LED digital watch around 1976. Consider this: the only difference between it and most Apple Watches until very recently was that you had to push a button to see the time.
It’s not that I’m the kind of person who sits watching/reading and complaining about all the things writers get wrong. But I do find the things they get wrong – or right – interesting. The little things. The things that are just two years away.
Consider Star Trek. Lots of Star Trek is just fantasy, but there they were, even Kirk, especially Picard, with iPad-like devices, decades before the real thing.
But I didn’t come here to bury Spin; I came here to praise it. And not with the faint praise of, “The best science fiction novel so far this year,” which is trumpeted on the front cover by the Rocky Mountain News! In fact I’ll tell you right now that Spin is one of the best science fiction novels of the last 20 years, up there with Ancillary Justice, Station Eleven, The Fifth Season and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.
While I have reviewed a few RCW novels on here, and I’ve mentioned Spin several times, I never actually posted a review of it. So here, with some spoilers, it goes.
The premise is difficult to place in a nutshell. It begins with the stars going out. Some kind of semi-permeable barrier has been erected around the Earth, putting it in a kind of cosmic quarantine. Outside the barrier, time is passing at a vastly accelerated rate. Probes launched into orbit crash back to Earth immediately, but carry months and months of data. Why? Nobody knows. Who? Nobody knows. How? Hand waving (always a wise move, not to try to explain this stuff).
The novel is concerned with the question of what happens. To human culture, society, relationships, the economy, you name it. Causes and effects.
But the novel doesn’t really begin with the stars going out. Its strength is that it’s less interested in what gets called the Spin and more interested in the central relationship between the narrator (Tyler Dupree) and his two best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, the twin children of the wealthy and domineering E.D. Lawton at the Big House next door. Tyler’s mother is their housekeeper. The three are lying together on the lawn when the stars go out, and they remain intertwined forever afterwards, with Tyler playing a walk-on role in both of their lives as they go their separate ways.
The tone is elegiac and the relationships well-drawn. Jason is brilliant, driven, political and finds himself at the centre of the science and engineering that tries to understand the Spin. Diane drifts into religion and a hopeless marriage, in a sect that believes this is the promised apocalypse. Of course, there’s always a preacher in this kind of end-of-the-world narrative, which is kind of depressing, but RCW handles it quite cleverly. There are no cartoon villains here: just sad and confused people – on both the science and religion sides. Tyler (who becomes a GP) fits uncomfortably between them.
The novel is structured around two time-lines. The narrative of the Spin and its aftermath is written by Tyler in the novel’s present, decades later, in the midst of a health crisis as he and Diane look for an exit and a better future.
Spin is in the grand tradition of the BDO (Big Dumb Object) in science fiction, an idea you can trace back to Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C Clarke’s monolith and Rendezvous with Rama, Bob Shaw’s Dyson sphere. RCW has written several of these himself: he’s very good at them. But the reason I keep going back to Spin lies in the humanity of its characters and the quality of the writing. The two sequels, Axis and Vortex (not necessarily in that order) are disappointing in comparison, so I’d almost recommend you stick with this as a standalone.