(2007) Robert Charles Wilson, Tor US, £5.99 / Can$9.99 / US$7.99, pbk, 355 pp, ISBN 978-0-765-34826-5
Robert Charles Wilson's Axis, the sequel to Spin (2005), came out in hardback in 2007 but only made it to mass market paperback last summer (2008) with copies subsequently popping up in UK bookshops with a half-decent science fiction section. In fact in addition to a good selection of Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick, Iain Banks, Harry Harrison, Bob Shaw etc SF, as well as more recent authors such as Stross and Reynolds, you can tell if a shop knows its genre with a good showing of Robert Charles Wilson novels of the past decade: all his stuff since 1998 is at the very least good and most of it is even better than that! Given this you are probably ahead of me in guessing where this review is going.
The book is set in the new world of 'New World' or 'Equatoria' (named after its most widely settled continent). Equatoria is reached from Earth by travelling through a huge 'stargate' in the middle of the ocean. How this 'stargate' came about is covered in Spin, but the short answer is that it was put there by mysterious extraterrestrials called the Hypotheticals.
One day the colonists experience a weird ash fall and it soon transpires that this does not come from a volcanic eruption but from space and that it is Hypothetical detritus. Meanwhile Lisa Adams is searching equatorial for her father who went missing years ago, and elsewhere on the continent an isolated group are raising a child who seems to have some sort of ESP.
These then are the basic ingredients at Axis's (or 'Spin 2's') start.
The big question facing those who have not yet read Spin is whether Axis can be read as a stand-alone novel? The answer is that such is the author's skill is that it can, though it soon becomes rather obvious that Axis is a sequel and that perhaps Spin should be read first. In short the impatient can get on with diving straight into Axis but personally, for my money, I would read them in order.
Of course if you have read Spin then the question you will be asking is whether Axis is up to Spin's rather high standard? Well, as indicated, Spin did set the bar a tad high. After all Spin did the 2006 Hugo Award for SF achievement: though those in the know realised that it would be a hot contender for awards that year and indeed the Concatenation core team had previously cited Spin as one of the top SF books of 2005, so helping maintaining this site's track record predicting likely candidates for Hugo nomination. In short Spin was a decidedly tough act to follow. Not surprising then that in my view Axis does not surpass Spin but is nonetheless a fine novel in its own right.
Then in addition to potential Axis readers who have or have not already read Spin there are those who are very familiar with Robert Charles Wilson's work. For them the likely question will probably be as to whether there is more to come: could Axis have its own sequel; could there be a Spin 3?
This last is intriguing. To my knowledge Robert Charles Wilson has not previously written a sequel to any of his novels. Furthermore the author is based in Toronto, Canada, whereas I am in Britain's East Midlands, and so our SFnal circles don't exactly overlap and I have no idea as to his motivations. To my mind he could either have decided a follow-up to Spin because that novel left so many questions hanging and ended with the doorway to Equatoria, or alternatively he wanted to thank his readers with a sequel given the praise Spin received which, of course, includes the Hugo. If it was the latter then Axis is it and there will be nothing more. The book ends with, among other things, a sort of an explanation as to the Hypotheticals motivation and we should be satisfied with that: bearing in mind part of the delight of Wilson's previous novels is that while some questions are answered, others are left open-ended for the reader to mull over. Converesly, Spin and Axis could well be part of a trilogy. We know that there is a world beyond Equatoria and we can make a number of further suppositions about the Hypotheticals with some certainty. These include that they have carried other species' and their home worlds through deep time and that they are - through stargate access to different worlds - providing planetary biome* sequences that facilitate adaptation, but to what end? (Why could this not be done without the deep time transport?) Also given that Spin was set on Earth and Axis on Equatoria, it could be that we might have a series of novels each set on successive worlds and which might include different aspects of the emerging story arc. (For example we could have a SETI encounter as others will be going through this adaptive sequence and so it should be possible to travel further along and possibly encounter a dentritic branch down which one might backtrack?) Speculations as to what might be done are considerable, but if Robert Charles Wilson does give us more follow-ups over the coming years then he could be creating his own universe much like Larry Niven's 'Known Space' or Iain Banks' 'Culture' novels. If he is then he is doing it in an inventive way but then you would expect that from one of North America's leading SF writers of our time. What ever we get in the future, you will want to keep your eyes open for the man's next offering.
*Biologists please excuse my inexactitude but you follow my drift.
Other Robert Charles Wlson novels reviewed on this site include: Bios, Blind Lake and The Chronoliths. Also, in addition to the hardback review of Spin linked to earlier in the above review, there is here a paperback review of Spin by Matt.
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