We All Land Somewhere: Robert Charles Wilson’s Vortex

It should come as no surprise to readers of the Hugo Award-winning Spin and its sequel Axis that the concluding volume of the series, Vortex, operates at a dizzyingly large scale in both time and space. While it’s true that the sweep of the novel is spectacular, it is also a brilliant demonstration of Wilson’s talent for weaving its larger themes, together with threads from the previous two books, into a decidedly human story.

It should come as no surprise to readers of the Hugo Award-winning Spin and its sequel Axis that the concluding volume of the series, Vortex, operates at a dizzyingly large scale in both time and space. While it’s true that the sweep of the novel is spectacular, it is also a brilliant demonstration of Wilson’s talent for weaving its larger themes, together with threads from the previous two books, into a decidedly human story.

In Spin, the touch of the mysterious Hypothetical beings sets the story in motion, introducing the elasticity of time that enables the narrative to work on both human and cosmic time scales. It is William Gibson’s “slow time machine” multiplied by a factor of a hundred million. The twenty-first century stretches on and on, and before they know it, the entire population of Earth has lived their way into what was formerly the distant future. The abstract notion that the Sun will one day swell into a red giant and swallow our planet becomes an event that the characters are likely to face within their own lifetimes.

Everything in the series grows from this seed. Wilson examines the myriad ways in which people react to their doom lurking just over the horizon, and each of the characters is drawn to something different: For E.D. Lawton, the situation is something to be exploited for personal gain. His son Jason is consumed by a need to understand it and find a way for humanity to survive against all odds, while Jason’s twin sister Diane rejects the answers that science may offer and prefers to embrace a worldview in which the Spin is part of God’s plan. As for the narrator, Tyler Dupree, he is driven by loyalty to his childhood friends and the desire to be a good person in what may be humanity’s final days. But underlying all this are the central questions of the Spin: Who are the Hypotheticals and what are their motives in intervening with Earth?

Axis, the only volume of the three whose action does not take place across millennia or eons, continues this line of inquiry but only pushes it so far. If this were a review of Axis, I might linger more on its faults. But though its substance may be slight by comparison, it serves its purpose as a bridge between its neighbours. As a follow-on to Spin, it gives us a glimpse at the world that lay just off the edge of the earlier novel’s canvas, the planet on the other side of the Arch of the Hypotheticals. But Axis is not so much about the new frontier of Equatoria as it is a study in how a little learning is a dangerous thing. Jason Lawton’s revelations at the end of Spin allow his successors to ask questions (and draw conclusions) about the Hypotheticals that seem more sophisticated but are, in fact, scarcely more well informed than the ones that have occupied humanity since the beginning of the Spin.

It takes most of Axis to get to its big idea, its October Event, which is not the ashfall that opens the book but the appearance of the temporal Arch, a mechanism developed by the Hypotheticals for preserving information. It is this device that provides the engine for Vortex. Turk Findley and Isaac Dvali are among those absorbed by the process of “remembering” and when they emerge on the other side, ten thousand years later, they find that they’ve been remembered by others as well. They are immediately whisked away to floating society of Vox, whose citizens are the product of a continuing obsession with the Hypotheticals and have been awaiting the return of the “Uptaken” for centuries.

Almost immediately we get a sense of a larger stage than that of Axis or even Spin. Vox’s origins lie not on Equatoria but further up the Ring of Worlds, the chain of planets linked by the Arches of the Hypotheticals, anchored by Earth and Mars — the original seats of human civilization. In the ten thousand years that have elapsed, the ecologies of both planets have collapsed, driving their populations through the Arches to more habitable lands. The themes of the series have all been amplified by time: The conflict between the Department of Genomic Security from Axis and the underground communities of Fourths has blossomed into full-blown wars in the Middle Worlds between “radical bionormative” societies and those, like Vox, that believe in harnessing Hypothetical technology. Vox itself is the spiritual descendant of Avram Dvali’s commune on Equatoria and even contains an echo of the NK cults of Spin, only this incarnation puts its unwavering faith not in the Christian God, but in the benevolence of the Hypotheticals.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, we get to travel down the other fork that follows from the events of Spin. It’s Houston shortly after the Spin is over, the Arch to Equatoria has opened, and humanity is now solely responsible for the acceleration of its own destruction, via the exploitation of fossil fuels from the New World and the subversion of the longevity treatment developed on Mars. In the midst of a record heat wave, a policeman and a psychiatrist at Texas State Care have taken an interest in a young man named Orrin Mather who has been compulsively writing a story in which he seems to be channelling the spirit of Turk Findley after waking up in the Equatorian desert having spent ten thousand years away from the world. While Spin’s flash-forwards revealed details that in many novels would be held back as a twist, Vortex keeps the mystery of just how these timelines are connected until its very end.

One thing that the two books have in common is a cast of compelling characters. The main characters of Vortex are each isolated in their own fashion. Orrin is a misunderstood drifter, while Dr. Cole and Officer Bose are both profoundly uncomfortable with the institutions in which they work. Turk, of course, has been snatched out of his own time and deposited in a strange and disquieting future. Treya, Turk’s Voxish liaison, shares the memories of a twenty-first century Earth woman named Allison Pearl. Her hybrid identity is designed to help Turk make sense of the world into which he’s been reborn, but ends up making her an outsider among her own kind. These characters are poised at a threshold: They view their respective communities with skepticism while at the same time yearning to belong. Through their eyes, Wilson presents a nuanced view of two worlds — post-Spin Earth and the Vox of the far future — a sense of how bizarre, while at the same time so familiar, so very human, these societies are.

Turk’s story may lie at the intersection of the two narratives, but it is Isaac Dvali, the boy bred — or engineered — for the purpose of communicating with the Hypotheticals, who really comes into his own in this novel. It is as if, by entering the temporal Arch, Isaac entered a pupal stage from which he emerges, in Vortex, as a fully mature adult. Isaac is the only one of his kind — the ultimate hybrid, and by that token also the ultimate outsider — who alone can bring together all the threads of the series.

Spin’s ideas were large and ambitious, and although the consequences of the Spin were well grounded and deftly portrayed through the lens of Tyler Dupree and the Lawtons, the very premise always lay in the realm of the unreal. In Axis the treatment of the story’s themes was almost too abstract to be relatable. Vortex elaborates on the concepts introduced in the previous books and introduces a few of its own. But though we have travelled even further along the path that we started down in Spin, and the events of this instalment pull us even farther into the future, the issues that these characters grapple with feel more relevant to our twenty-first century life than ever.

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