10 March 2011

Robert Charles Wilson's "Spin"

The first edition hardcover (source).
Spin is a novel reflective of the hard science fiction genre. As a recap, hard science fiction employs sound scientific principles, studies, methodology, and thinking in its work. The goal is to make the science of science fiction seem tangible, even if it isn't.

I have to admit, I always had difficulty with hard science in general. It's not so much that I doubt its truth or principles, but I've never been a logical person who can successfully analyze data, and sometimes I'm still unable to grasp everything about it. In terms of the sciences, I'm average with geology, OK with biology and psychology, and bad with chemistry and astronomy. I just never grabbed onto science strongly enough for me to retain a lot of it, which is unfortunate, because it is so interesting!

Science is about possibilities, asking important questions, and finding the answers to those questions. I'd forgotten this; I'd reduced it to being facts, studies, and protocol, essentially sucking the wonder out of it. It took a novel like Spin to remind me that science is all about the joy of the exploration of ideas and phenomena. It is the basic notion of producing awe and wonder by asking the simple question, "what if?"

Robert Charles Wilson's Spin has plenty of hard science (physics, space-time theory, medicine, human biology, social science, etc) in its pages. It is a testament to the author that I was able to follow it and understand it, even when I usually am unable to. 

My brief summary doesn't do the book justice...Elisabeth Carey does a better, succinct one here. But let me go with it anyway; the premise of Spin is this:

On a night like any other, young Tyler Dupree and his best friends, twin siblings Jason and Diane, look up at the sky...and the stars go out. They completely disappear, leaving black nothingness above them. The world is never the same after this event.  Though the Sun rises the next day and all seems normal, it's anything but. Scientists discover that the Sun in the sky is an artificial construct, and a strange membrane has encased the Earth. Though the membrane is slightly permeable, it nonetheless is the culprit for blocking the stars from the sky (essentially, the "outside" from the "inside").  Even more disturbing, the membrane (nicknamed the "Spin") has slowed time on Earth, making one of its days equal to a hundred million years in the universe outside the Spin. What this means: the death of the Sun and Earth will occur in Tyler, Diane, and Jason's lifetime!

Imagine that you'll be alive for THE END. It's absolutely terrifying. I can't even begin to wonder what I would do in this situation, let alone how the world would cope and prepare. Though Spin employs scientific methodology to explore the nature of the event, Spin is still faithful to the main proponent of speculative fiction: the promotion of wonder. It's Spin's evocation of wonder and horror that I'd like to explore.

As I mentioned above wonder leads to asking, what if? (Of course, we can add more questions to this, such as how and why). But wonder isn't only for creating curiosity and asking questions, it's also to meant to produce awe.
Home sweet home.

What I find skillful in Wilson's Spin is how he is able to produce the sense of awe and wonder and simultaneously elicit fear. It reminds me of the older meanings of words like "terrific:" what we view as a positive word, a compliment even, also suggests something extraordinary and horrifying. It's not a coincidence that "terror," "terrifying," "terrible" and "terrific" share the same Latin root which means "to frighten."

Wilson's writing deftly reveals the terrific, or what I term "dreadful wonder" of Spin. A particular passage I found to be haunting in imagery occurs when the Chinese detonate nuclear weapons against the membrane of the Spin. Jason is privileged to receive information and is aware of these plans ahead of time, but mistakenly believes it is not set in stone yet, and China may be talked out of releasing the weapons. He at least believes there would be plenty of warning before the risky procedure would occur...but he is wrong. The nuclear warheads are detonated out of the blue.

History has shown us that mankind should fear nuclear weapons. So just even talking about their destructive force, and the plans to detonate them, is terrifying. In Spin, the general population doesn't know about China's plans. So it's even scarier when they detonate and no one knows what they are, and they produce a strange image in the sky:

"There was no setting sun. Or rather, there were several. The entire Western sky was alight. Instead of a single orb of the sun there was an arc of reddish glow that stretched across at least fifteen degrees of the horizon, containing what looked like a flickering multiple exposure of a dozen or more sunsets. The light was erratic; it brightened and faded like a distant fire, [. . .] We sat hip to hip as the sky grew darker. Then the stars came out" (Wilson 76).

Star system Z Camelopardalis. 
The imagery is beautiful and scary, especially since the stars had not shone in the sky since the Spin occurred...what would suggest a return to normalcy is actual more fear-inducing because in this case, it could suggest that the Spin membrane protecting the Earth was gone and that the protection from the Sun and time itself was gone. However, if this happened they all would've died immediately...so all that's left for the characters (and the reader) to do is observe. Even though the image of multiple suns has faded, there is still some horror in the sky above:

"Stars are born, live, die, and bequeath their elementary ashes to newer stars. The sum of their various motions is not simple but unimaginably complex, a dance of attraction and velocity, beautiful but frightening. Frightening because, like an earthquake, the writhing stars made mutable what ought to be solid" (Wilson 78).

Time outside the Spin membrane passes differently than time on Earth, one year in ten seconds, five years in five hundred million years (a "temporal gradient"). When the sky is opened up to reveal the stars, it's not just the stars that are shown. The movement in the sky reveals the creation, birth, and death of stars, all in a matter of seconds. It is essentially taking an immeasurable, abstract notion (eras and eons of time), and making it tangible. It makes Man, who only views time relative to himself, for the first time capable of getting a true sense of omniscience, the God-like power of being able to see everything (all that is, and all that is as it is).

In many theistic religions, God (or the gods) is attributed as being both beautiful and frightening, the same as Wilson describes the episode of the stars. In Christianity, God is cited as "awesome in His works" and "terrible in His works" (Psalm 66:5). In Hinduism, Kali (interestingly, one of the meanings of her name is "time") is both beautiful and terrible (Ramakrishna Paramhansa 1836-86). The god-like ability therefore matches God itself. It is only fitting that when Tyler and Diane look up at the sky and see eternity pass before their eyes through the life cycle of stars, that the imagery Wilson employs likewise is awesome and terrible; or, as I call it, full of "the dreadful wonder."

Wilson, Robert Charles. Spin. New York: Tor, 2005. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I love the imagery displayed in the passages, it seems soothing at first to watch the changing and dying of the universe a burst of life to death. but in the end what happens when the lights go out? it also seems like a great example of what would you do in your last moments? as always kristina this is a great review thank you for sharing with us all!


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