In Which I Write a Rare Book Review

I’ve been doing a Hugo Book Club with my friends from grad school for the better part of a year now, and I just wrote a review that I decided to cross post here, since it’s relevant. Our book this month was Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin (which won the Hugo in 2006, I believe). There are only very mild spoilers if you’ve not read Spin – and if you read the summary on the back of the book, there are none at all:

I just finished reading Spin. Maybe 15 minutes ago.

I loved it. But I have to qualify this review before I start it:

I finished reading Perdido Street Station (by China Mieville) earlier this week. Perdido Street Station did something to my head that I’m still trying to parse. It rewired something. And I was coming off a week of writerly optimism (which has made me feel much like leaving grad school did – that the things I’ve been waiting to happen for years are finally happening). The result of all of this is I’ve been living in a state of pleasant anticipation. And it’s with this mindset that I picked up Spin.

Spin is staggering – it’s a very small story within a much, MUCH larger one. Even more so is the fact that this story really only takes place over the course of a few weeks (with recollections peppering the framing story of Tyler and Diane trying to escape from Jakarta). The recollections blend furiously with the small advances in the current storyline until both culminate in the penultimate chapter in a mix of current and recent past to bring the story to a neat conclusion. I loved the way this story was structured – with the tension constantly ratcheted throughout not only with the tension in the current situation in the present, but also the mystery of the earth’s situation and the nature of the threat and Earth’s destructive, yet believable reaction to it in the past. The mysteries pulled me through, keeping me guessing right up until Jason’s monolog near the end when all is made clear.

With all of the “current event” commentary in the story, for me it never dipped too far into preaching. It reminded me in many ways of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (which could never in any sense be thought of as “small”), but Robinson has a way of letting the message overwhelm the story (it wasn’t quite so bad in the Mars books, but some of his other ones get to be pretty insufferable – Years of Rice and Salt, I’m looking at you). Mars made comments on the nature of modern humanity, both political and social, and similar points are made about the unsustainability of current human resource consumption levels, but while Robinson made a point to use that as the precipitating factor for the Mars expedition, Wilson’s reasons for pushing humanity to Mars came out of a different crisis, with the uncertainty of the future providing the impetus. This made the Mars books very cynical in their overall tone, while Spin maintains an overall optimistic tone which is a theme of the book – that there’s always hope, even in ignorance, even when it’s tamped down by the prospect of the burning of the world. It’s a meditation on faith. While the Mars books are a meditation on human greed.

The similarities don’t stop there – there’s a common theme between the two of the Scientist as a Hero. In Spin that’s exemplified in Jason, in Wun and even in Tyler. And in the face of such an apocalypse as this, that’s really the only kind of hero there can be. The government fails – it’s bones too creaky, it’s momentum too massive for it to act effectively. And religion fails (predictably culminating in the empty faith of the hardcore believers kneeling over their stillborn salvation). Science is the only thing that saves humanity – the science of the Earthlings, the science of the Martians, and ultimately the science of the Hypotheticals.

The geriatric treatments in both were plot-necessities.  In Mars, it was done as a way for Robinson to magic wand away the obvious problems humans would have on the surface of Mars (not to mention a way for him to keep the same characters for the entirety of the terraforming, which was extremely effective), but the connotations rippled throughout the entire world. In Spin it was an effective way for Wilson to solve the problem of Jason’s AMS, but towards the end it was minimized by the act of an excessively greedy and frightened government. While the behavior of the government in Spin for me was a constant source of eye-rolling, I had to ask myself – if this were to happen, would our government really behave differently? Despite this, the treatments in Spin had a much larger meaning in the story that I really appreciated. Jason’s whole life was a representation of the perceived death of the world. The palliative treatment for his disease paralleled his palliative attempts to save humanity. Right up until he died, his live was allegory for the larger story, his revelations bringing back the hope that for a few had never been completely lost.

And that’s probably why I loved this book as much as I did. It’s a rare thing to read something at the exact moment your current headspace is so open to it. It was like that when I read Thief of Always as a kid. It was like that when I read Sandman as a grad student. And it was like that when I read Spin over the last few days. It delves into everything that’s wrong with humanity at this moment, but maintains its hope for a future – and that even though there’s uncertainty, faith can exist in many different forms.

Now, there were a few things that bothered me about the book – the revelations often came through monologs, particularly at the end, which while deftly done, felt rushed compared to the pacing of the rest of the book. As I said before – the EVIL GOVERNMENT was a bit too broadly drawn for me. And the relationship between Tyler and Diane was never as compelling to me as it should have been. Also, the summary on the back of the book was fucking retarded – I’m glad I didn’t read it until after I finished the book. Letting the story unfold without any prior knowledge made a big difference for me.

With those things in mind, I give it a 9. All of the things I’ve touched on in this review aren’t all of the reasons why. The other reasons are from the space the entire story occupied in my head – and by this I mean, it was easy to let myself exist within the world Wilson built, and how I struggled alongside the main characters to comprehend the scale of the threat, not to mention letting myself indulge in the implications that come with Jason’s revelations at the end about the Hypotheticals. Even the thinly drawn way Martian society was depicted gave my mind so much space to run around and consider the fundamental pieces of human nature that produced these two very different, but very similar societies… it reminded me of all of the things that the movie Moon brought up about the nature of our personalities, and how the fundamental things that make us who we are can be so easily altered based on circumstance (altered, but never completely destroyed).

I’ve now finished reading Spin as of about an hour ago. And I think I’m gonna go figure out what this other little thing THIS story just did to my head.

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