The wrong genre – Axis by Robert Charles Wilson

There’s a thing the media (collectively) does, which must annoy many people as much as it does me. They hitch themselves to a narrative, the wrong narrative, and stick to it, no matter how many times they are (collectively) corrected. Nobody wants to be the, “Well, actually…” guy, but for pity’s sake. They’ll call Gen X Millennials, or Millennials something else, or they’ll call going on holiday a Staycation and then have nothing left to call that thing where people actually stay at home and go out on day trips.

I was reading a (YA) book review the other day and saw a novel described as a “dystopia” when from its description it was clearly a post-apocalyptic book. Harder to say and less trippy off the tongue, certainly, but there’s a real difference. One of them I generally dislike as a genre; the other I quite enjoy. The apocalypse or post-apocalypse might sound to some journalists as if it ought to be interchangeable with the dystopia, but they’d be wrong. I mean, if you’re a running dog capitalist lackey who lives up Rupert Murdoch’s arse, then, sure, an apocalypse might seem like a bad thing. But in other hands, the end of capitalism might well lead to the kind of paradise described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, or even the seductively attractive world of Station Eleven, which might have a few irritations (there’s always a preacher) but seems like it might be a quite pleasant world to live in.

Spin was a post- or slow-apocalypse – what happens when everything about the world changes and a new world appears. Its elegiac tone and first person narrative is a warm bath to sink into. Plenty of things go wrong, but the exciting possibility of real change is always there.

What you want, in a post-Spin, post-scarcity world is for the old agencies and the old politics and the old economic certainties to fade away to be replaced by a new universe of space and possibility.

But of course, these BDO narratives always rub up against the post-scarcity plot problem, which is that with virtually unlimited space and resources there is no need for conflict. Once you have reached the Ringworld, you can disappear into it and live your life however you please. It’s impossible to have a police state in something that size.

Here, in a nutshell, is the problem faced by Robert Charles Wilson when it came to writing a sequel to Spin. The publishers will have obviously wanted a sequel to something that got so many good reviews and which ended up on every critics end-of-year list. But having finished it on an open note, with the promise of the infinite possibilities of the Arch-connected worlds, there was nowhere to go but downhill.

Let’s start, as we must, with the title. Spin was acknowledged within the book itself to be a bad name for the phenomenon it described. And now we have Axis, which is a terrible name for the sequel to the Spin that wasn’t a spin. 

And the genre: we’ve shifted from the post-apocalypse straight into the dystopia. Is it meant to be? Consider the evidence: given a whole new planet (and perhaps more beyond that) to play with, what do humans do? They drill for fossil fuels, build shanty towns, over-fish the oceans, and wreck ships on beaches. In other words, they repeat all the mistakes that meant the Earth was in trouble in the first place/book. It’s all very depressing. Add to this a weak government and shadowy agencies abducting and torturing people, and you have yourself a dystopia.

With this genre shift, I’m already losing interest. For the record: I don’t like reading dystopias because I feel like I live in one. It’s the same reason I couldn’t watch The Office: that was too close to what my job at the time was like.

Quick synopsis: it’s 30 years after the final events of Spin, and we’re on the new world, which is called Equatoria, except not really. I think we’re meant to imagine an Australia-like continent: people clinging to the coasts, with a desert interior. Our protagonist is Lise, who is looking for information about her father, who went missing 12 years before. She hooks up with Turk, a bush pilot, and the story begins when a meteor shower turns into a Pompeii-like fall of cosmic ash, the remains of dead nano-machines. They eventually encounter a community of “fourth age” post-humans, who have created a child who can “hear” the Hypotheticals that created the Spin and the Arch connecting the worlds. 

It’s not a bad story, and RCW can still write, but the text itself doesn’t work well for me. I called Lise the protagonist above, but she’s not the main or only point of view character. Wilson shifts p.o.v. constantly, taking us from Lise’s head into Turk’s, and then into on of the “Fourths” (Sulean) and into the boy Isaac’s head, and elsewhere. It’s not even a question of chapter-by-chapter but sometimes in the space of a couple of paragraphs. Fair enough, you think, it’s up to the author to shift point of view if they want. But I can only call it undisciplined and ultimately repetitive, because we keep encountering the same exposition from different viewpoints.

And here’s the central problem: it starts to feel a bit like either a rushed or a poorly edited sequel. On the one hand, the sense that different sections are written and then linked together without removing redundant narration; on the other, the feeling that the dead hand of a bad editor has insisted that certain plot points are explained over and over again, with the assumption that the reader needs to be constantly reminded.

Finally, I have to complain about the book design. The chapter and section headings are in an ugly letterspaced sans serif, but the text itself is set in Berkeley Old Style, which is a bad choice for readability. It’s too quirky and odd-looking, constantly drawing attention to its Venetian Renaissance credentials, like a historical battle re-enactor wearing a completely authentic costume — and a smart watch. You might think this a silly, minor quibble, but in over 300 pages, I never stopped noticing the font. Kept putting the book down, too, unable to concentrate on it for long stretches.

Anyway, do read Spin, but forget the sequel. Unless you like a dystopia.

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