There's a piece of rock in eastern Nevada, near the Great Basin National Park, where the Long Now Foundation is planning to build their Millennium Clock. Designed to tick once a year, chime once a century, and with a cuckoo that will sing once a millennium, the clock is an artifact designed to make us think about the deep future. In his new novel, Spin, Robert Charles Wilson pulls a similar trick: he collapses the future down into a 364-page mediation on humanity's potential and persistent impact over time.
Spin throws together a number of the familiar tropes of science fiction: a rapidly approaching cosmic apocalypse, alien science so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic, the generational tussle between father and son (an embittered old industrialist versus his genetically deficient yet brilliant offspring), coming of age in the twilight of humanity, mankind's reaction to first contact, and the age-old battle between faith and science. Wilson's trick is to whirl it all together so fast that the lines begin to blur; the trick is, indeed, in the "spin."
The book's title refers to the Spin Membrane, a mysterious barrier that suddenly encircles the Earth one night, blotting out the stars and capturing the planet in a bubble of relative time. The ratio between inside and outside is so severe that a hundred million years pass for every year on Earth. The obvious apocalyptic event rushing towards the planet is the eventual death of the Sun, which will arrive before a hundred "years" pass on Earth. Throughout, Wilson's handling of how humanity deals with the discrepancy between local and absolute time is deft. On one hand, Earth will be destroyed within the lifetime of most of its inhabitants and there is the resultant shift in social and cultural mores: what is the point of moderation and planning for future generations when there won't be any? Is this a world worth bringing children into? Should you bother with personal niceties or is anarchy just the easiest way to go? Wilson balances this examination of our dread of destruction with the time frame outside the Spin Membrane. Scientists have 50 million years to execute experiments; contingency plans that would only bear fruit in a million years are an afternoon's effort inside the Membrane. Evolution happens overnight and civilizations can blossom and decay in a month of local time.
The relative and absolute timeframes of Spin are played out through the children of industrialist E.D. Lawton: hyper-curious Jason and his spirited sister, Diane. Jason, the genius child of science, is consumed by his desire to know the secret of the Hypotheticals (the name given to the mysterious intelligence behind the Spin Membrane), while Diane, mortally afraid of the blankness that lies beyond the approaching terminal point of human existence, seeks refuge within the embrace of the faithful who await the imminent Final Judgment. The book is grounded by Tyler Dupree, childhood friend to both and personal physician to Jason during their adult lives. Tyler is the conduit between the extremes they personify and, moving back and forth between them in his role as integral observer (similar to that of the hagiographer Dunstan Ramsay in Robertson Davis's Fifth Business) he becomes a witness to both the unfolding drama of infinity and the collapsing black hole of humanity's microscopic fascination with their own mortality.
Despite the grand cosmic scale, the novel never strays too far from the story of the central characters and their interactions. Wilson's emphasis (and clear strength) is people, and not the events or the mind-boggling implications of the science fiction elements. Ultimately, the importance of Dupree is that he completes a chain. And in a wonderful "as above, so below" flash of illumination that hits you as Wilson draws together all the science fiction elements into a cohesive conclusion, you can only marvel at how he so effectively bends all the hoary tropes of old to his will, in the service of such a simple human love story.
Even so, Spin is long on scientific extrapolation, and Wilson's compression of time makes a fascinating contrast with the infinitesimal nature of our personal existence. Even as you are considering the efforts of millions of millennia, Wilson never allows you to forget the necessity of human interaction. As a morality fable examining the essence of human communication, Spin puts you outside the narrow band of your own temporal span and asks you consider the entire range of human existence. Where you do fit in?
Mark Teppo is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest where he works on fiction while he is commuting and when people think he's gone off to the restroom. He has works in progress and is a member of the Misfit Library. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.
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