Thursday, July 27, 2006

Book-A-Day #10 (7/26): Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

I read Spin as part of a general preparation for Hugo voting -- I'm in the middle of Old Man's War now, and I have a few short pieces to get through as well.

Spin came to me heavily hyped, and it might have suffered for that. I settled into the beginning of it easily, and thought something like, "Yes, this is a really good novel. I can see why everyone was raving about it." But that feeling slowly ebbed away: it's a low-key book, and, I thought, an oddly colorless one. I didn't mind reading it, but it was an easy book to put down, and I never felt any urgency to pick it back up.

Half-way through, I figured out what it was about Spin that was nagging in the back of my head: it's a J.G. Ballard novel as written by Isaac Asimov.

I'm serious: a young, male doctor is tugged along in the wake of a rich woman and man -- brother and sister -- whose wealth and power he both wants and dislikes; the rich man is a visionary with plans to remake the world, and the protagonist, almost without knowing it, aids him every inch of the way. He's sexually obsessed by the woman, and has her in the end, after the rich man is dead of his own hubris. If the "Big House" had a drained swimming pool, Ballard could have sued...

The Asimov-ness is more of a general regular-skiffy tone to the prose; Wilson is a good writer, but he's not a fine writer -- you don't go to Wilson for fancy metaphors or virtuoso passages. This is a Real SF novel, and so everyone in it is just a bit more like an engineer than real people actually are: they all explain things just a bit more clearly, and they all do what they say they will do, and they're nearly always rational (even the religious loonies are exceptionally rational religious loonies). Similarly, the main character, Tyler Dupree, is a cipher even though he narrates the entire book.

That's something else again -- the name Tyler Dupree. It seems to be an echo of Fight Club's Tyler Durden, which (especially given Spin's Tyler's relationship with his rich friend) would imply a rich stew of psychological issues. But that doesn't seem to be the case; in the end, I decided the names were just a very unfortunate parallel.

I see I haven't said anything about the skiffy plot: unknown aliens enclose the earth in a geostationary-height membrane that blocks out the moon and stars, while making time pass within at a rate of 100,000,000 to 1. The book occasionally seems to be about that membrane, but Tyler's personal life is always central; the skiffy stuff always remains subservient to the character story. That would be fine, if the character story didn't feel just a bit creaky and old-fashioned.

In the end, I liked Spin but I couldn't love it. It's relentlessly safe and rational, and I kept wanting it to go crazy. On the one hand, I'd have loved to see more wild SF speculation, with Big Unlikely Science Stuff -- but Wilson keeps the science low-key and plausible (which is to say, borderline boring). But even more, I'd have loved to see some serious fine writing, and I wanted Tyler Dupree to open up psychologically and have some real emotion. In short, I really wished Ballard had written this book. That's probably my fault rather than the book's, but I kept putting my foot down, expecting another step -- and that step was never there. Spin's stairs always stopped about a foot lower than I thought they should.

All in all, there's something a bit too Canadian in Wilson to do the end of the world right. Spin has a lot of good qualities, but it was just too in-between to really engage me. But I am just coming off a giant pile of quite literary WFA reading; it's possibly my literature detectors are set much too high for everyday use right now.


Dave Smith said...

That's more or less my response to Spin. Good novel, I can see why lots of people liked it, but in the end it really isn't the type of book I love.

Anonymous said...

"All in all, there's something a bit too Canadian in Wilson to do the end of the world right."

Hey, what about LAST NIGHT, which looks at the last day of life in Canada and other terrestrial regions? Grim, gritty -- OK, apparently the Canadian government took the time to shut itself down in an orderly fashion and there aren't that many roving mobs but the traffic on the Gardner is terrible.

Anonymous said...

i agree with your comments about spin..caught me up in the first...then it all went down from there...been reading his other novels and short stories...i like him alot especially yfl-500-in fast forward by lou anders

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