Posted by : atcampbell | On : June 20, 2006

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

On June 20th, 2006, the FACT Reading Group discussed Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Spin. Most of the people in the group finished the book, and most of the group read Robert Charles Wilson before.

The protagonist and other characters

Most readers did not like the protagonist, Tyler. They found him hard to identify with. Several readers observed that Wilson deliberately distances the reader from the main character; perhaps it is to illustrate how Tyler does not let anyone get close to him, which is something several secondary characters in the book pointed out to him. Some group members also found him a strange choice for the main character, because he is not a key player in any of the major events. He is not one of the movers and shakers of the book. He does not move the plot along. He is mostly just an observer.

Some readers found the book to be ridden by cliches: rich kid vs poor kid (Jason/Tyler); a woman on a pedestal who doesn’t know it (Diane); an alcoholic mother (Carol); a domineering father (E.D.); the first love that lasts forever (Tyler’s love for Diane). They unanimously agreed that Wilson does not follow the “show, not tell” guideline when constructing his characters. We know that Jason is a prodigy only because the author tells us so; we don’t get to see Jason’s genius in action. Similarly, we are told that Tyler’s mother was the only emotionally positive force in all of the family members’ lives and the one thing that held the family together, but it is not shown anywhere. We don’t even get to meet her. We are only told that it was so.

Various implausibilities, technological and plot-wise, pointed out by the FACT group readers

Would the Spin cause telecommunications technology to collapse the way it did in the book? Hardly, readers concluded. Yes, the satellites would have become unavailable, and the GPS would have gone out, but satellites don’t play such a critical role in telecommunications. Most of the signals go through fiber. And, according to one reader, it would have taken the world a week to reroute all their signals through fiber. After all, the internet is designed to route around errors. For one reader who used to work in telecommunications, this implausibility pushed his bullshit button so hard it seriously ruined the enjoyment of the book.

Nobody understood why Tyler decided to take longevity drugs just as he and Diane were fleeing the country, pursued by the secret police. He knew the drugs’ side effects would make him very sick for weeks! Why did he have to do it right then? Why not wait until they were in safety? Or why didn’t he do it earlier? Other readers added that as long as we are questioning Tyler’s rationality, waiting 35 years for the love of his life is hardly rational, either. He spent 35 years pining for a woman he fell in love with when he was 10.

Not everyone agreed whether the societal and religious reaction to Spin was portrayed plausibly. Some said Wilson really gave humankind too much credit, since the society he portrays is rather orderly. Even in the last days of the Spin, when everybody assumes the world is about to end in a supernova explosion, the civilization does not collapse, although the social order is certainly challenged.

Pacing of the book, and is the frame sequence a good thing?

More often than not, the group found this book to be slow-paced and, to quote one reader, “pedestrian”. They probably got this impression because there is chapter after chapter that describes rather mundane events in the characters’ lives, without really advancing the story.

But I think what Wilson is trying to do is to portray (as he also did in Chronoliths) “little” people living their lives in the face of a great uncertainty, trying to make sense of events beyond any comprehension, trying to keep their lives together and find their place in a world in which there is very little hope for the future, as the world is expected to end in a few decades. Because the characters in the book don’t have any “special powers” (unlike in so many science fiction cliches), I was able to identify with them much better. On the other hand I, too, agree that Wilson occasionally errs on the side of too much realism, to the point where his characters start to seem dull.

There was some disagreement whether the framing sequence worked in favor of the story or not. In Spin, scenes from the present, where Tyler and Diane are fleeing from the secret police in Malaysia, are interspersed with scenes from the past, from Tyler’s and his two friends’ childhood, following them over the next 5 or so decades all the way up to the present. Some readers thought this intermixing of present and past scenes ruined the story, because from the very beginning we already know that Tyler and Diane are going to be together eventually, hence depriving us of suspense about whether their romance will ever pan out. Also, we know that the world did not end with the Spin, despite the dire prediction at the beginning of the book. One reader said, however, that the scenes of Tyler and Diane fleeing from the police were what kept him reading: unlike the rest of the story, they provided enough suspense to want to find out what happened next.

The book raises provocative questions

But not everyone was disappointed with Spin. A half or so of the group members thought the speculative science in it was interesting, the writing was very good in places (though not so much in others), and that the book raises some provocative questions and discusses them.

One reader said Spin reminded him of a humorous parable. A little bird is out in the desert. It falls out of his nest in the cactus and falls on the cold desert floor. Whenever the sun sets in the deserts, it’s very cold. The bird is complaining of the cold. So a big cow drops a huge smoking cow-pie on this little bird. The bird is now nice and warm, but now he cheaps: Oh god, I have a cow-pie all over me. Then a coyote walks by and hears him. He grabs the bird, “rescues” him from under the cow pie and eats him.

The moral of the story: people who throw shit on you, they’re not always out to get you, and those who are rescuing you are not looking out for your best interests. And that’s what Spin is telling us.

— Elze Hamilton (www.geekitude.com)