Book Review: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Take the Earth, place it in a kind of time bubble that slows our time down to an infinitesimal crawl compared with the rest of the universe and shut out the stars and you create a world that poses a highly unique set of challenges to the characters involved. Sort of like the whole world has become Rip Van Winkle. What is most impressive about this novel, however, is not the big, science fiction ideas, or even the philosophical questions it raises about humanity’s relationship to the rest of the universe. For me, it was the characters that made Spin a novel to relish and Robert Charles Wilson an author to look out for.

The novel focuses on three main characters, Tyler (the narrator of the book), and his friends Jason and Diane, who are brother and sister. What struck me most about Spin was the way that love and friendship were played out between these three people, each of them struggling to understand and/or accept a world that changes radically in one single moment when they are children. That moment, the moment the Earth becomes separated from the universe and from the stars and even from the moon becomes the defining moment for all of them, yet they experience that moment and their subsequent lives in very different ways. Jason quests for knowledge at all and any costs while Diane retreats, at times, to the seeming security of religion and faith. Tyler is the middle ground, reaching after both of his friends but never able to match their purity of vision, their absolute commitment to either the mind or the spirit. I suppose one could see Tyler as the body, Jason as the brain, and Diane as the heart. But such schematics seem, ultimately, a bit hollow as I reflect on the book and the characters. What most struck me most about Spin was the honesty that Wilson demonstrates in writing the relationships between the three characters. Here is a book were people lose each other for years at a time . . . sorta like–or very like if you ask me–life. In addition, I couldn’t help but recognize Tyler’s feelings for Diane as they moved in and out of each other’s orbit throughout the course of decades (subjective time, of course, billions of years go by throughout the course of the story). The puppy love of a child, the flavor of true friendship being haunted by spice of sex and the fear of ruining everything, the growing apart and becoming strangers and yet still, somehow, connected on an intimate level are all emotions and situations that I have experienced in two of my most important relationships.

One of those relationships was with Emily Richardson. She and I met in High School and only “officially” dated for two weeks when we were freshman. And by “dated” I mean that we walked to the library holding hands and talked on the phone a lot. Then, over a spring vacations, she broke up with me. I don’t remember being devastated, I don’t remember really any strong reaction to that moment, but for the next ten years or so, I would orbit her like an asteroid: sometimes far away and distant, her form vague and only barely present and sometimes so near and present that I was always in danger of falling completely, leaving orbit and falling into her gravity well. Never to escape. Years would pass and I would believe that I was really, truly, over her. Then we would spend time together and I would begin falling once more. Yet, through it all we remained friends. She knew me better than almost anyone for a good long time and to this day I can still feel just how warm and right her embrace felt; how much just holding her in my arms could make the universe seem more manageable. We lost touch about four years ago when I was unable to go to her wedding. I hear she has a kid now and I miss her. I miss knowing the shape of her life, of sharing my own with her. I miss having a friend with whom I shared years of love (platonic as it may have been) and stories and memories and intimacies.

The point is that Spin, for all its science fiction and big ideas, is about relationships and the toll that time can take on them and, perhaps, the redemption that some relationships can offer after even more time. In a sense, Time is a forth character in the book. How time moves, how it feels to move through it becomes a central element of Spin: time that sometimes moves slow and sluggish and at other times jerks and twists violently, time that is a friend and time that is an enemy. Time, like the other characters in the book, is contradictory and never simple. Tyler does not spend every waking moment wanting Diane, yet she is never far from him. Jason is supremely arrogant yet he understands, more than the others, how to be humble in the face of knowledge. Diane lives a life of fear, but has more inner strength than the men in her life. Wilson gives the reader characters who are complex, dynamic and who feel instantly recognizable while at the same time always doing or saying something that defies expectations. In this way, Wilson brings a verisimilitude to his characters that is rare in any genre.

I read the book courtesy of TOR Books. And by courtesy I mean free. Yes, free. TOR has recently been giving, every week, a book away for free. You can download them in PDF, HTML or Mobipocket formats (and it is relatively simple to convert the HTML version into a Microsoft Reader format if you have a copy of Word 2003). No DRM, no catches – just free electronic books that you can read on your computer or any number of other devices. Having read one of his books in this format, I am extremely more likely to buy another book by Wilson in the future, perhaps even a hard copy version of Spin. For those who have doubts about the benefits to giving some work away for free, TOR’s experiment will hopefully provide a model that bears significant fruit for everyone, readers, authors and publishers alike. I, for one, eagerly look forward to reading and buying more Robert Charles Wilson, and whole-heartedly recommend Spin.