Fiction Reviews


(2005) Robert Charles Wilson, Tor, US$25.95 / Can$35.95, hrdbk, 364 pp, ISBN 0-765-30938-6


As you know we tend to focus on UK book releases, but with internet sales enabling reasonably cost-effective imports, works that are cutting edge an ocean away simply need to be covered. Similarly authors who are clearly somewhere up at the front of the international SF pack need being brought to the attention of a European market; especially if their books are not on high street bookshop shelves. (Also one hopes that reviews in the handful of specialist SF review sites, such as this, help European specialist SF & fantasy bookshops decide on stock.) Toronto based, and US Tor published, Robert Charles Wilson is one such writer of leading science fiction and consequently it is a positive delight to review his latest book.

It is the present day and suddenly the stars go out. It is the Big Blackout.

During an otherwise normal next day we find that our orbiting satellites have all crashed, worn out through age.

Also that same day, an orbiting space mission returns home, its astronauts reporting that the Earth below had gone black and that they had, apparently, waited ages until their consumables almost ran out before attempting a descent to a dark home. At first they are thought to have flipped.

It soon transpires that the Earth has been shielded from the rest of the universe. (Initially this is reminiscent of Greg Egan's seminal Quarantine (1992).)   The Sun somehow becomes a featureless disk heat source. The aurora borealis is no more. The Moon is gone but the tides remain. Outside the Earth time is travelling faster. The Galaxy is literally in a spin.   Of course the scientists immediately realise that the universe is exactly as it ever was and that somehow the Earth is being shielded from time's flow. Time on Earth passes far slower. A hundred million years passes outside the Earth for every 'year' on the Earth.

A family who run an aerospace business becomes intimately involved with the phenomena as the World's governments try to ascertain what on Earth (or around it) is going on.   There are, though, advantages.   One of the problems with space travel is time. It takes an Earth year normally to travel to somewhere like Mars and it would take many thousands more to terraform it. However now time is on our side... but can we address the problem let alone to find out exactly how this situation came about and, importantly, why?   Meanwhile two siblings, and their (the principal protagonist) childhood friend, see their own personal lives evolve and entwine with the phenomena. (In this sense of the grand to the local parochial, Wilson reminds me of Simak.)

Robert Charles Wilson has done is again.   He continues his track record since the Award-winning Darwiniana (1998) of an uninterrupted series of excellent novels. These include: Bios, Blind Lake and The Chronoliths. OK. So you want some criticism. Well it is going to be hard. The typo of the Kourou complex on page126 is one of the few faults, but virtually all books have these.   No, such nitpicks are churlish. More to the point there are some delightful moments and observations. For example a more hospitable part of the terraformed Mars is described as, 'the kind of place you might like to visit, where people were friendly and the scenery was interesting, although the winters, he admitted, were often harsh.
("Sounds like Canada," Carol said.)'

The science is above average too. His discussion (page 242) on what makes for a successful intelligent species (coincidentally?) echoes the human demographic mathematical 'cartoon' exemplars of Joel Cohen. There are also genre references both transparent, On the Beach (page 257) and less so, Bradbury with the Martians being dark with glittering eyes (page 326). In short the SF-loving scientist is additionally entertained.

So, do I recommend this book? I'll let you hazard a guess.   See? Telepathy works!

Jonathan Cowie

P.S. Some 7 months after the above review was first posted Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for SF achievement. Concatenation also previously cited Spin as one of the top SF books of 2005, so helping maintain Concat's track record predicting likely candidates for Hugo nomination.

See the sequel Axis review.

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