After a long hiatus, I picked up my first sci-fi book in about a year: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson. The story begins when, one clear night, all the stars disappear. The story is from the perspective of one relatively ordinary person (Tyler Dupree) who happens, just by luck or chance, throughout his life, to be close to all the significant developments in humanity’s response to this event.
Darwinia is the only other book by Wilson that I’ve read so far, and it was a relief to see that, unlike that book, this one stays true to itself and doesn’t jump out of its own skin in an effort to shock the reader. Spin is an balanced mix of pseudoscience (i.e. science-like ideas) and down-to-earth emotional storytelling.
The pseudoscience doesn’t have many ideas that could be called new. Malthusian principles, von Neumann replicators, advanced alien civilizations that have colonized the galaxy eons ago, relativistic-style time differentials. It’s the way Wilson uses these ideas that is unique: he arranges them in new, interesting configurations.
Wilson creates interesting problems and comes up with brilliant solutions. Many science fiction products — for example, Star Trek: The Next Generation, though that isn’t a book — create interesting problems but then rely on a solution that is extrinsic, unrestricted by the parameters of the problem. If the ship’s drive is about to fail and Lt. Data says, “add some dilithium crystals and increase power to the secondary antimatter drive, resulting in a Markov field which will get us out of here” that isn’t a solution; it is mumbo-jumbo. Conceptually, it is no different from a magic spell. In Spin, once the laws are laid out it’s obvious that the solution lies within the parameters of the laws; if the reader thought about it long enough, s/he would be able to come up with the same solution.
Just as importantly, he doesn’t focus on the pseudoscience itself. His main interest in the book is in how things affect humanity. The story is almost entirely about the Tyler’s feelings as he moves through life in close proximity to the people who make the big decisions about mankind’s response. A lot of the feelings have nothing to do with the momentous events at hand; just with normal human relationships and how they are affected by the events. This is in contrast to several modern science fiction writers, such as Greg Egan, Charles Stross and Peter Watts, who go all-out with the pseudoscience. I find such authors fascinating but slightly unfulfilling as story-tellers.
Because I’m Indian, I like to see India mentioned. India finds little purchase in the minds of most science-fiction writers; I can’t think of many sci-fi books where India is portrayed favourably (Carl Sagan’s Contact at least doesn’t brush India off). This book was written in 2005, a time when it became obvious India is going to space, and also that India would be inflential economically. Wilson seems well-informed but dismisses India: Russia, the EU, China, the US all have important roles to play — India doesn’t. But that’s a very minor gripe.
The real problem with this book is its low-keyness. The narrator Tyler is excessively humble in his descriptions of himself and everything else. While the descriptions do get ideas across, there are no highlights: things are delivered in a kind of emotional monotone. Even exuberant events don’t seem to affect Tyler’s understated observation; he doesn’t seem to know what to do with strong emotions. Reading such a monotone throughout the book was a little wearisome: I wish there was a little more enthusiasm!