Fiction Reviews


(2011) Robert Charles Wilson, Tor (US), £6.99 / Can$8.00 / US$7.99, pbk, 361pp, ISBN 978-0-765-36320-6


A teenager, Orrin, is picked up by the police and left at a state hospital. He seems strangely vulnerable. Even stranger, thinks the hospital's Dr Sandra Cole, the policeman bringing him in seems more kindly disposed towards the young man: most police normally being too busy. Then the policeman asks Dr Cole to review some stories the youngster had been penning and that is when the real mystery starts.

The stories merge into what is effectively a single narrative set in the far future whereby Turk Findlay has been resurrected on another world by alien technology that had also been responsible for shielding the Earth from the Universe effectively sending it forward in time. This alien technology was also responsible for the mysterious, space-reaching giant arch (stargate) that linked the Earth to this other world (and then this other world to another and so forth).

After his resurrection, Turk was picked up from the alien desert by cybernetically connected future humans who consider Turk has a connection with the hidden alien arch-builders. It is this story that Orrin recounts thousands of years earlier in his writing.

And, in the present, it seems as if someone, or some people, want the young lad Orrin kept off the streets and out of the way permanently. This was something that Dr Cole was not about to let happen…

Now, the above teaser summary simply does not convey the sense-of-wonder that Robert Charles Wilson imbues this novel. Partly this is because Vortex is the third in a trilogy: the first two titles being Spin (which won a Hugo in 2006) and Axis. To be honest, it really is best if you go back and read the first two in the trilogy before tackling Vortex. And if you have already read these then let me assure you that Vortex is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. True, the wrap-up in the novel's last dozen pages is rushed and so might, unkindly, be considered a bit of a copout, but the rest of the novel is very solid and from the word go captures the reader, so that when the end comes it is almost a cathartic release, and that in itself is very satisfying. Indeed, because the ending really is a tying up loose ends affair more for the benefit of the reader than bringing the narrative to a sensible conclusion, that the substance of the story lies in all in the chapters that precede this.

On one level Vortex concludes the Spin trilogy and a great SF yarn, but on another it is a polemic against selfish self-interest and group think. The humans use the oil reserves of another world transported through the arches to further business-as-usual and that leads to ocean acidification and super-greenhouse warming. Allegorically this reflects our currently (first fifth of the 21st century) beginning to exploit oil tar sands and shale gas to bolster our fossil carbon economy which is something of an issue in Robert Charles Wilson's home nation of Canada. Knowing what is coming, the author seems to opine, means that we have a chance to do something about it. Personally, as someone into climate and biosphere change, I am pessimistic: in the quarter-century since the formation of the IPCC (the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) we have failed to reduce fossil carbon in the atmosphere, we have even failed to just stabilise atmospheric carbon, and, heck, we have even failed to begin to lower the rate of growth of fossil carbon emissions.

This is a solid Robert Charles Wilson novel. The man writes a bit like Clifford D. Simak, many of whose stories seemed to mix a rural setting with something grander if not cosmological. Many of Robert Charles Wilson's novels do much the same thing with an individual engaged in a mundane life being accidentally caught up in a grander-scaled event or events. This is a brilliant trick to pull off as it takes the reader with the writer right to the heart of the story. As for this story's conclusion: well, a bit rushed certainly but it does the job and the ending itself, different from the rest of the novel, is in effect wide-screen space opera. This begs the question as to whether we will ever get a hard-SF, widescreen space opera from this author. That would be something.

I rate Robert Charles Wilson highly and if you have not then you should give him a go. Sadly he is not often published in Britain – a huge mistake on Tor's part – but you can occasionally pick up his imports at specialist bookshops without having to prostitute yourself with Amazon. Keep an eye out for him and now is a good time to pick this trilogy up as Spin is about to be adapted to a TV series. Perhaps this will prompt Tor UK to re-release the first books over here and give us a British Isles edition of Vortex?

Jonathan Cowie

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