I finished reading Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, this weekend. I really enjoyed the book. And in my ongoing rating system I have on my personal bio page, I’m going to give it an A+. However, because I’ve spent an average of two days per month for the last five years or so in various writing groups, it’s become my nature to read things with a critical eye. Few books are perfect, and though I thought Spin was excellent, I can’t resist pointing out two minor flaws.
1) The novel juxtaposes two opposing views: the scientific and the Christian. Characters maintaining both views attempt to explain their rapidly changing world through their perspective. It is clear, in my mind, that Wilson favors the rationalist, scientific, point of view. What I couldn’t figure out was (spoiler warning) why Wilson felt humanity needed to be saved? The central premise of the novel is that any sentient culture living in a limited space with limited resources (i.e. a planet) will eventually exhaust its supplies and die. Along comes Vast-Interstellar-Intelligence to save the day. But the VII is so slow-thinking that humanity doesn’t recognize it at first. What Wilson has unintentionally done is ruin his argument (if I read the text correctly). In the novel, a messiah doesn’t come to save humanity, but the VII does. In both cases, humanity is impotent to effect it’s own change. And while altering this premise would vastly change the novel, I found myself more than a little frustrated at Wilson’s suggestion that humanity is at best impotent to cosmic forces.
2) This one is more technical. Throughout the novel Wilson refers to the use of aerostats, high-altitude balloons that are used instead of orbital satellites after the Spin (a black shroud that encloses the Earth) appears. Every time there is an astronomical event in the sky, the aerostats conveniently stop working, leaving humanity temporarily without communication. Wilson should have studied intercontinental communications a bit better. Most communication data travels over fiber-optic cable, not satellite, including the Internet and phone calls, and therefore would be immune to any interference from the stars. A geosynchronous satellite has a two second round-trip time, a latency that’s okay for one-way mass broadcast communications like television, but downright snail-like for Internet and phone calls where latencies in the half-second are considered high. I suppose it was a good device to have when Wilson wanted his characters to be ignorant of the state of the world at large.
These two flaws aside, however, I thought Spin was a remarkable novel in its breadth of scope and its ability to extrapolate a future billions of years hence. I know why it won the Hugo, and it my mind it is very deserving. My trigger-happy crit brain just couldn’t resist the crit.