AE Bookshelf: Robert Charles Wilson

Sometimes it takes a Hugo for people to sit up and take notice. Robert Charles Wilson has been putting out science fiction novels since 1986, fourteen of them at last count, but it wasn’t until Spin took home the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006 that he really started to make a name for himself.

Sometimes it takes a Hugo for people to sit up and take notice. Robert Charles Wilson has been putting out science fiction novels since 1986, fourteen of them at last count, but it wasn’t until Spin took home the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006 that he really started to make a name for himself.

Spin is the sort of book that makes the “literature of ideas” shine. It’s the day after tomorrow and, with no warning whatsoever, the stars all just go out. It’s a simple premise, really just the inversion of Isaac Asimov’s 1941 classic “Nightfall,” but Wilson gets deep inside it and makes it real. There is panic, prayer and prophesying, and they are all pitch perfect, but where Wilson really shows his talent is in his loving portrayal of those people who just keep on keeping on.

The central trio of characters in Spin are gifted scientist Jason Lawton, his wayward sister Diane and their childhood friend Tyler. When the stars go out, Jason finds his purpose in life. He is driven to understand the how and the why of it with a fire that there is never any doubt will consume him. Diane, on the other hand, finds God in the darkness. The empty night sky is a warning of damnation and a promise of salvation both. But it is Tyler Dupree, who wants nothing more than to live a good life in a starless world, who is the heart of the book.

The story of Tyler is that of someone who wakes up one morning and finds that his life is, in the cutting words of his ex-lover, “permanently on hold.” His is a constant struggle to make forward progress against a world that’s stuck waiting for the other shoe to drop. This unexpectedly subtle angle on the crisis makes for a far more compelling read than the same idea would have in the hands of a more straightforward writer. Which is not to say that Spin lacks for broad strokes. There are a dozen other big science fiction ideas layered underneath the first one and, before the final page, the story of stars going out has become a tale of terraforming, self-replicating AI, religious eschatology and even, after a sort, time travel. But it is the characters and their decidedly life-sized problems that makes Spin fantastic.

Spin is such a tight package that it’s something of a surprise to learn that it has a sequel, Axis, published in 2007, and another on the way. We asked the author if the series had been intended as a trilogy from the start and he averred that “Spin is a standalone novel with two sequels.” Axis is set several decades after the events of the first book. Only one character from Spin makes a direct appearance, and that as a supporting character. In that way, it is a refreshing type of sequel. Even the core premises of Axis are tangential to those of Spin, elaborating greatly on ideas that were introduced only fleetingly in the first novel, rather than going further down the roads it paved so well. In truth, Axis could be read quite comfortably as a standalone novel as well, the only compelling reason not to do so being to avoid spoiling the ending of Spin.

Vortex, the final book in the series (which Wilson jokingly asks us not to call “The Spin Cycle”) is to be released this July. Relatively few details of the book have yet been made available, but it is slated to be something more of a direct follow-up to Axis than that book was to Spin. “Two of the main characters in Vortex are survivors from Axis,” Wilson told us. “you really need to have read Axis before you pick up Vortex.”

As far as the plot goes, Wilson would only say, rather cryptically: “The story line gets into some fairly Stapledonian territory.”

Which is, in its way, tremendously appropriate. Olaf Stapledon is a giant of Golden Age science fiction who nonetheless falls beneath the radar of many readers, as Wilson did until very recently. But Stapledon is far from the most obscure influence on Wilson’s work; as evidence, we need look no further than his 2009 Hugo-nominated novel Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America.

Julian Comstock is a futuristic post-apocalyptic novel that reads for large portions like a work of historical fiction. “When I wrote it,” Wilson told us, “I was immersing myself in some pretty obscure 19th-century US popular literature, which turned out to be more entertaining — and often more ferociously topical — than I had expected. It wasn’t all melodrama and ‘moral fiction’ — popular literature of that era was one way of conducting public debate on real issues. (The classic example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which amplified the moral debate around slavery and without which American history would surely have been very different.) The temptation to adopt that voice for a book about a depleted, theocratic America was irresistible.”

His success at adopting that voice is so complete that it might easily throw off many readers of the genre. Julian Comstock is a book that is easier to recommend to a fan of Mark Twain than to a fan of Peter Watts. The corollary of that, however, is an increased accessibility to the mainstream reader who is far more likely to be familiar with Twain than with Watts. “Of my published works,” Wilson confirmed, “I’d probably suggest a seasoned SF reader start with Spin. When someone unfamiliar with the genre asks me for a recommendation I usually point them toward Julian Comstock, which I think is a little more accessible for readers easily frightened by cosmology.”

And if Robert Charles Wilson is reaching out with Julian Comstock to those who wouldn’t ordinarily read science fiction, he also expresses admiration for those reaching in from the other side of the genre gap. “I think [Margaret Atwood’s] misplaced contempt for science fiction is a handicap,” he says, “but you can’t fault her for moral intelligence. Michael Chabon obviously has a deep understanding of genre and uses it superbly: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union deserved all its awards. But the best SF novel from an ‘outsider,’ and probably the best SF novel of the last decade, period, is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.”

If it were up to us to bestow the title of “Best SF Novel of the Last Decade, Period” though, Spin would be a solid contender.

Full Name: Robert Charles Wilson
Born: California, United States. 1953
Most Recent Book: Julian Comstock: A Story of the 22nd Century. The third volume of the Spin series, Vortex, is forthcoming in July.
Recommended: Spin (2005)
Biggest SF Influence: “Ray Bradbury for mood and atmosphere, Theodore Sturgeon for grappling with human questions, Heinlein not because I agree with him but because his books are thought-provoking and fun to argue with, LeGuin for depth and profundity, Tiptree for style and acerbic wit … I could go on.”
Favourite Current Canadian SF Writers: “I don’t want to name names, mainly because I haven’t had the time to read as thoroughly in the field as I used to. We seem to be in a golden period for Canadian fiction, including science fiction and fantasy.”

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