Vortex – putting the try into trilogy

My Easter holiday reading project has been to re-read Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin trilogy in full. I’d read Spin more than once, but had initially found both sequels disappointing.

I’ve been sitting on my thoughts about Vortex, the last of the books, for over a week now. I didn’t find it as disappointing as Axis – in fact, it was better than I remembered. But I wanted to ponder what I think it is. The first book, as I wrote before, is a kind of post-apocalyptic novel, while Axis was a dystopia. And as if to prove that this genre-switching within the trilogy wasn’t a mistake, Vortex could be seen in a couple of different ways. Straightforwardly, it’s a kind of far-future, deep time space* opera; squinted at sideways, it’s a time travel novel. And as with so many RCW books, its main concern is with the technological sublime.

Even as a lot of modern ‘literary’ and television/film sci-fi becomes concerned with the near future, using five-minutes-from-now settings, books like Vortex want us to do the impossible (for most humans) and imagine ten thousand years from now.

The far-future science fiction text has a long history, and it’s these kind of settings where you will find the wildest ideas. Trying to imagine the survival of humans into the far reaches of deep time is to acknowledge something that a lot of people have trouble with: that we’ve been evolving on this planet for millennia, and that forensically indistinguishable human skeletons could be found dating from around two hundred thousand years ago. And even our civilisation, whether you date it from the first set bone or the development of agriculture, has been growing and changing for over ten thousand years.

So a novel that invites us to imagine the state of humanity after another ten thousand years is doing a particular job. Most people can’t plan more than a couple of weeks ahead; even governments struggle to see beyond the next election. People attached to the British government pushing for ‘herd immunity’ a year ago apparently couldn’t imagine what over 100,000 dead would play like. In Russia and China under Communism, Five-Year Plans led to disaster and famine. It’s interesting, then, to imagine ten millennia of consequences, ten thousand years of shitty human behaviour and what it leads to.

One of the things that made Axis a dystopia was the sense that humans, given a whole new planet onto which to expand, immediately started to exploit its fossil fuel resources and send the oil back to Earth. This depressed me, and it probably depressed Wilson too, because the consequences of that unregulated and irresponsible exploitation are laid bare in Vortex. He knew, in other words, what he was up to.

And it’s not even unrealistic, which is what makes it depressing. In our present time, when everybody – even the energy sector – knows that we need to stop relying on fossil fuels, fracking proposals have been given the go-ahead around the world.

The result is a climate so fucked that the home planet can no longer support life.

But it’s okay (quibble coming up), because there is a ‘ring of worlds’ (not a Ringworld) that humans live on. And while we might not recognise these humans, they endure. Here’s the quibble: in Axis, we learn, yes, that there is a ‘ring of worlds’ connected by Arches, but they are progressively more hostile environments. This idea seems to have been forgotten, and instead we learn there are ten worlds, with Earth and Mars as the end-points. Huh. Perhaps later editions were rewritten to reflect this change in emphasis? Never mind.

But with unlimited space, how can there be conflict? RCW invents this with a society he calls Vox, which consists of humans adapted so that they are emotionally networked together, making collective decisions through something called a coryphaeus, which is a word derived from ancient Greek drama, the central voice in the Chorus, essentially. Of course, this is a nightmare for anyone who wants to express an individual will, so Vox is in conflict with every other human society.

So that’s the deep time stuff. The time travel stuff is very clever indeed. There are two narrative threads: the first takes place in the not-too-distant future, post-Spin, but (importantly) pre-Axis. So we’ve hopped back a little from the second book. The second thread (or, I guess, the other end of the first thread) is the ten millennia far future, where a consciousness/personality from the middle book is revived. From both ends of this ten thousand year thread, a story emerges. It’s very good, finely wrought, very neat, and as satisfying to read as all good time travel narratives are.

So RCW redeems the trilogy here, I think, and now I reckon it’s worth going through the pains of Axis to get to the cleverness of Vortex. Unfortunately, you cannot get away from the fact that humans are terrible.


*Yes, yes, a space opera in the sense that planets are in space

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